If you like Lost, you'll want to catch a ride on this Lifeboat with some original survivors, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart advises.
"The sea, so big and terrible."
When Alfred Hitchcock told this fictional story of the survivors of a torpedoed freighter, it was one ripped from the headlines—stories of people stranded in lifeboats after German U-boat attacks were an everyday part of newspaper accounts. Although topical, Lifeboat is a World War II drama that deserves to be remembered.
Facts of the Case
The movie opens on the freighter's smokestack hitting the water, the fire going out in a blur of smoke and sea foam. Hitchcock pans the debris, lingering on baggage, a New Yorker magazine, playing cards, and a chess board in the water—all signs of human life. The first body we see is that of a German; we see the words "Deutsches Reich" on his life preserver as he bobs face down in the water. Then we see a woman sitting alone in a lifeboat, wearing a fur coat and smoking. Except for a run in her nylons, she's composed and calm. She's Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead, A Royal Scandal, Fanatic), a journalist; when she sees the first of the survivors who will join her, her first instinct is to take photographs as he approaches. When she tries to take a photo of a baby bottle bobbing in the water, the man, crewman John Kovac (John Hodiak, A Bell for Adano), knocks it away with a tennis racket he's found.
One by one, the freighter's survivors find the lifeboat: by-the-book crewman Stanley "Sparks" Garrett (Hume Cronyn, Cocoon); injured crewman Gus Smith (William Bendix, The Life of Riley); Red Cross nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson, I, The Jury, Peyton Place); wealthy shipbuilder C.J. Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull, The Fountainhead), and assistant steward George "Joe" Spencer (Canada Lee, Cry, The Beloved Country), who has saved a mother (Heather Angel, Suspicion, Pride and Prejudice) and her baby. They're all covered in grime, a contrast to the poised Connie.
But there's one more survivor seeking refuge on the lifeboat. When he says "Danke schoen" as he's lifted aboard, they realize he's from the German U-boat. Kovac leads the campaign to throw the German overboard, while Rittenhouse reasons that, "If we harm this man, we're guilty of the same tactics you hate him for." Connie questions the man in German, drawing verbal attacks from Kovac about her "friend," and inquiries about whether she knew about the attack.
As the survivors debate the correct route to Bermuda, the German, Willi, has an answer, found with the help of a compass he's concealing. But is he telling the truth?
Lifeboat's drama is made up of many small moments, handled by an excellent cast. Early on, the tone is set by Angel's performance as the shell-shocked mother Mrs. Higley, horrified to realize that her baby's dead. When she swoons and drops the baby, the German picks the bundle up. Mrs. Higley hits at him wildly. She grabs the baby back and holds the lifeless body to her own bosom. Bendix also shines as a ballroom dance enthusiast whose leg injury has become gangrenous, needing amputation. Before the operation, he banters with Joe, guessing about the pitching lineup for a baseball game he can't go to. Afterward, he slowly loses touch, talking to his sweetheart Rosie as if she's there. Black actor Lee seems relegated to playing the recorder at first, but gives Joe depth in a scene where he's asked to return to his pickpocket past to search the German. The reluctant Joe even plays the recorder first to wake his target, then conceals the compass he finds guiltily in his hands.
The prime survivor berths are taken by Bankhead, Hodiak, and Slezak. As suggested in her first appearance, and detailed at length in the DVD's commentary track, Connie is attached to things, such as a typewriter and camera that soon are pitched out to sea. She clings to a diamond bracelet throughout the movie, often asking men to fix its clasp, making it a surprise when she's willing to use it as bait to catch fish for food. While she seems aloof, Connie also gives her fur coat up for Mrs. Higley, and is the one who talks Gus into agreeing to the amputation. Connie's also a confidante for Alice, who slips and says she's "glad the freighter got torpedoed." Pressed, Alice explains that she's afraid to return to Britain because of an affair with a married man. Connie's changes reveal themselves in a key speech later on, with Bankhead dramatically calling the survivors to action. As Kovac, Hodiak plays a man of action who readily takes command, overruling the German's advice and setting his own course. He clashes with Connie about her callousness early on; she returns the favor by chiding him about the initials of many woman tattooed on his chest. Later, they share a kiss, and Connie paints her own initials on his chest with lipstick. Though there's passion, his answer is a curt, "Quit slumming." Slezak gets a tricky role, in more ways than one, as Willi, the German. Since his character isn't speaking English, he has to convey emotion with silent-film gestures as he holds the lifeless baby, or with the expression on his face as he steals a look at the compass, balancing softer touches with a hidden ruthlessness. He keeps viewers off-guard, as his character does with the freighter's passengers.
Rounding out the cast, Anderson is convincingly naive as the Red Cross nurse who's reluctant to assist in an amputation, and charming in scenes with Cronyn as they fall in love without her even knowing his last name. Hull shows his chops as an industrial titan as he barks out orders in an early scene.
And, yes, Hitchcock does slip in his traditional cameo in Lifeboat. If you haven't heard about this one, just watch closely as William Bendix reads a newspaper in an early scene.
The set, a 40-foot lifeboat in a tank on the Fox backlot, was one of Hitchcock's most limited, but he keeps the shots varied through constant mixing of close-ups, shots of two or three people, and group shots. Process shots in the background always let us know it's just a movie, but it's still done with Hitchcock's flair. One striking sequence is the one in which Gus's leg is amputated. Several people stand around the lighter being used to purify the knife; we see only their hands, as in prayer. Kovac, Connie, and Alice stand over Gus and Willi, who's performing the amputation. Rittenhouse, looking sick, heads toward the side. To show the amputation has taken place, Gus's boot falls to the bottom of the boat. Another is the burial at sea of the baby, as Joe says a Psalm for the deceased. To amplify the mourning, the actors are seen only in shadow against the night sky.
The fading in a couple of early scenes worried me, but the stark black-and-white tones that Hitchcock filmed come through crisply in this transfer. Both soundtracks are fine, with overlapping dialogue coming through loud and clear. The commentary by University of Southern California Prof. Drew Casper goes into lots of great detail about the making of the movie. How did guilt, a common Hitchcock theme, work itself into this one, for example? The characters are "all guilty of not being whole." If you haven't seen Lifeboat before, though, you'll hate the spoilers, so watch the movie first. There's also a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, the director's daughter. It's got one really tacky moment, with a cutout Hitchcock bobbing in the water to depict the director's original intent to appear in a cameo as a floating corpse, but mostly satisfies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many critics, as well as the Office of War Information, had problems with this movie. They disliked the "superficial" Connie and the German, who is likeable at times and more focused than the Americans. Tallulah Bankhead answered this criticism at the time, pointing out that Hitchcock's portrayal was an allegory for reality: the Germans were powerful until Britain and other countries banded together; the German in Lifeboat is powerful until the other survivors ultimately join together. Viewers will note that Willi, with moments of likeability even as he turns out to be duplicitous, makes a more chilling villain than he would if his intentions were clear from the start.
The Hitchcock name should be enough to get you to check out this film if you haven't seen it, but modern couch potatoes have an extra reason to check out this neat little ensemble drama: the current TV hit Lost deals with many of the same themes of survival and interpersonal relationship in an ordeal.
While the characters might be guilty of not being whole, Lifeboat is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by USC Film Professor Drew Casper
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