THE FOLLOWING REVISED AND UPDATED REVIEW OF “LIFEBOAT” WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLOGATHON FOR ROB OF THE MOVIE PAGE “MOVIEROB.” ONCE AGAIN, I WOULD LIKE TO EXTEND MY THANKS TO ROB FOR THE WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE DONE SO.
What’s it About?
Several survivors of a torpedoed ship find themselves in the same boat with one of the men who sunk it.
Directed by ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Written by JOHN STEINBECK
Iconic Director and Film Maestro, Alfred Hitchcock’s decision to call upon writer John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath), with help from Jo Swerling and Ben Hecht, to pen the script for “Lifeboat” from 1944, paid off, immeasurably. If ever a film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre deserves the singular credit for being bold, inventive and sublimely profound in it’s cinematic efficiency, it’s “Lifeboat.” But unfortunately, another distinction about “Lifeboat” is that many don’t know it very well and don’t even consider it the definitive Hitchcock film, the honor which was left for later films in his career.
It is one of the few films that Hitchcock directed which utilizes only one locale, or set, for most of the film’s duration. Much like “Rope,” (which many think is a real-time film with no cuts, but is actually deceptively edited by using the back of actors covering the frame, because film cartridges only lasted about 20 minutes back then) and even “Psycho,” to an extent, Hitchcock builds suspense using a singular setting and focusing on a small band of dynamic characters, all readily used and ripe for his manipulations.
So, obviously, all of the fantastic elements that Director Alfred Hitchcock used and honed so well during his reign in films are on full display here in this overlooked and oft-underappreciated 1944 war drama. “Lifeboat,” written by John Steinbeck, who had a somewhat tumultuous dealing with his prior film effort, the doc named “The Forgotten Village” and even Colliers Magazine, the drama tells of a wartime maritime disaster that thrusts a diverse band of strangers together. From a Radio Operator to a U-Boat Captain, among a tapestry of others, all brought in tandem to, of all places …a small, rickety and claustrophobic lifeboat.
“Lifeboat” features a diverse and incredible cast that consists of the prodigious Tallulah Bankhead (Devil and the Deep, A Royal Scandal), Hume Cronyn (Hamlet, Cleopatra, Cocoon), William Bendix (Detective Story, The Deep Six), Mary Anderson and the wonderfully unique Austrian actor Walter Slezak from “Treasure Island” and “Black Beauty” fame. These actors all have an amazing plexus on-screen and the impressive cob-web intrigue that happens all between them in incredible and thought provoking.
Within the confines of the Lifeboat, with the difficult framing of all of them (DP Arthur Miller, who shot “The Gunfighter,” in 1951, fell ill and was replaced by Glen MacWilliams) in so many tight spots is where this film really shines. Say what you will about the propaganda, message and tone, the movie excels when Hitchcock and Steinbeck explore the actual living microcosm in the lifeboat that James Cameron also attempted to scrutinize, with debatable success with the bigger budgeted “Titanic” from 1997.
The film takes place on one lonely set (An actual large water tank, set up by the studio). The lifeboat itself. The ocean, a set onto itself, as well, is expansive and extremely menacing. It is shown using some really well done rear projection. The characters while enduring the harshness of the open ocean in their limited setting, distrust the U-Boat Captain who does not seem to understand or comprehend them, but has a keen way with navigating the lifeboat on the treacherous open sea. As they get hungry, thirsty and desperate the paranoia and conflicts surely increase.
Here, Hitchcock really flexes those filmic muscles and ratches up the suspense as we get to know each of the character’s flaws, motivations and fears. One survivor even claims to be holding a small bundle which she thinks is her dead baby in a very morbid but real approach to the theme and horror of maritime death which was bold for 1944.
In a very telling and awe-inducing moment, when the tricky Walter Slezak eventually reveals that he is indeed a Nazi is when things really go sour. It is a very manipulative machination that Hitchcock always takes advantage of in many of his films: The reveal of a dark secret. It is a thematic play that he can only do in that accurate and profound fashion. The film then becomes, shocking, thrilling and even thoroughly cerebral as it teaches and explores astute lessons about fear, paranoia and survival. What is also very important, here, is the tangible but delicate trust that is also formed by these survivors in this harsh environment.
Despite it’s being overlooked by faster and more pumped up films like “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo,” it is “Lifeboat” that provides the high drama (dare I say melodrama in some places?) and heart felt emotion that films about maritime disasters evoke. The Mother asking for the whereabouts of her son is a stunning piece of histrionic art that still resonates on a hermetic and erudite level.
Hitchcock wonderfully controls the environment with wonderful medium close ups and perfect composition. The film was to be shot in color (Technicolor), of course, but then Hitchcock was urged to save some money and cut some corners to accommodate the salaries of the actors. It works in it’s favor, because the movie, with it’s atmospheric photography, garners a favorable palette with it’s solitary and exclusive lack of color, giving it an oceanic type of dullness and morositivity. What brings it all to life is the performances, especially Bankhead, who carries the film with a surprising amount of restraint and precision that most actresses have shied away from since Hollywood’s golden era. I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall during rehearsals.
You may have noticed that I have intentionally left out details and spoilers, obviously, but I want to completely recommend the film on the very reputation of Alfred Hitchcock and hi astute cinematic charisma. Especially to those who have not seen the film. It will be a revelatory experience for you all who have yet to reach out and watch this movie. “Lifeboat” is under-rated in many circles but ironically, it is also a very highly regarded “lost gem” in Hitch’s filmography. The film is full of natural and believable performances that outshine many even by today’s ultra-realistic standards. It’s a film of a very different and controversial era, not only in world and social history, but in old school cinema and it’s timeless and charming conventions.
Alfred Hitchcock and John Steinbeck both were nominated for the coveted Academy Award. Hitchcock his second for directing and Steinbeck his first. This is an important and classic film that cannot come more highly recommended!
Cracker! Nice work! One of Hitch’s most under appreciated movies.
Thanks Mark! Much appreciated buddy 🙂
Glad you enjoyed the write up. Even I, while being an avid fan of Hitch, have taken this film for granted in the past. Now I watch it at least once a year and always find some nuance or element to like in the movie.
Thanks for the awesome feedback and for sharing the review!
Excellent review, Vic! I really enjoyed your analysis of this forgotten wartime classic. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen this movie, so it’s due for a re-watch. I’m glad Hitchcock stuck with B&W for this one. It’s hard to imagine it looking any other way.
Thanks, Barry! Very nice of you to say, man! Happy you enjoyed it. The Black and White adds another layer of that surreal dynamic that some filmmakers try hard to emulate but can never get right. The mood was brought out perfectly by Hitch with the camera work, here. I appreciate you checking in, Barry. Thanks!
Excellent work for this unique Hitchcock tale, Vic.
Thanks, Michael! Glad you enjoyed it, man. Thanks for checking in!