In my last post I looked at Hitchcock’s use of a restricted setting in the masterful Rear Window, however the 1954 classic wasn’t the first of his films to be based in one location. A film that many have cited as a rehearsal for his later classic single-location films is 1944’s Lifeboat; a movie that I have to confess I’d not seen or even heard of before taking up this challenge. Although in the case of Lifeboat the location is always moving, the director builds up the intensity of having a number of colourful characters populating the same tiny vessel whilst not being sure who to trust.
The lifeboat of the title belongs to a ship that was sunk after a collision with a German U-Boat which almost ended up sinking. When the film begins columnist Connie Porter is the only person on the boat, having come aboard with all her belongings and capturing on camera the original boat capsizing. Soon enough the boat begins to fill up with crewmen from the boat including engineers Kovac and Gus and radioman Stanley as well as other passengers including wealthy industrialist Rittenhouse and U.S. Army Nurse Alice. Joining the boat later on are a young British woman and her baby who are both rescued by one of the boat’s stewards ‘Joe’. When another hand appears on the side of the boat, the passengers help the man aboard only to discover that it’s a German member of the U-Boat crew. There’s an obvious argument about what to do with some feeling that they have to throw the German, Willi overboard whilst the majority agree to keep him on board and hand him in to the authorities. However, emotions start to get in the way as the British woman’s baby dies and she decides to drown herself in order to be reunited with her child. Furthermore, there are power struggles as Kovac and Rittenhouse both want to be captain of the ship with the former being jealous of the latter’s wealth and intellectual prowess. Meanwhile the injured Gus becomes increasingly paranoid and eventually has to have his leg amputated due to fears of gangrene. With all these distractions, Willi is able to evade suspicions despite revealing more about his personality as he goes on including the fact that he can speak English and also that he’s been hiding a compass. Eventually, during an interaction with a delirious Gus, Willi reveals his true colours as the rest of those aboard the lifeboat realise they have to work together rather than argue if they want to get results.
It’s always interesting to look at a Hitchcock movie that I’d had no prior knowledge of and to see how well it fits into the director’s back catalogue. Lifeboat was made during a time where Hitchcock was being hired out to other studios and in this case 20th Century Fox with the movie marking the only collaboration between the director and the studio. In the case of Lifeboat the tension is created by the preconceptions and prejudices that the characters bring with them as they wait to be rescued. As it turns out, their prejudice towards Willi are warranted as the German U-Boat captain does eventually reveal himself to be the villain of the piece. However, at the time, audiences believed that the character of Willi was painted in too sympathetic a light and in fact was presented as the most level-headed character in the film. John Steinbeck, who wrote the story that the film was based on, tried to have his name removed from the film as he agreed with the criticism levelled at the characterisation of Willi as well as of the token black character ‘Joe’. However, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that Willi is positively drawn so that the reveal of his villainy is even more shocking especially since he kills off the kindly Gus in the process. I personally didn’t think Lifeboat has aged as well as the other Hitchcock films I’ve watched but it still has its merits and it’s easy to see why Hitchock received a Best Director nod for the piece. Primarily Lifeboat is unique to watch thanks to its setting and the different camera angles that Hitchock employed which he planned using a miniature lifeboat and figurines. Like Rear Window, Lifeboat also achieves realism through having no orchestral accompaniment during the body of the movie and instead the only music comes via tunes performed by ‘Joe’ on his flute.
Lifeboat received three nominations in total at that year’s Oscars with Hitchcock, Steinbeck and cinematographer Glen MacWilliams all garnering nods that were ultimately unsuccessful. Once again, as Lifeboat featured an ensemble cast, it was easy to explain why none of the actors were nominated for Oscars although I do feel a couple of them could’ve been considered. I found Tallulah Bankhead’s performance as Connie to be the most compelling as she starts as a rather uptight character before revealing herself to be incredibly down-to-earth as she makes a play for the working class Kovac. However, I found the best performance came from William Bendix as the doomed Gus as he made us sympathise with a man who didn’t want to lose his leg as he and his girl regularly attended dance competitions. Bendix’s performance climaxed with an incredible scene in which he is betrayed by Willi and I found the actor to be utterly compelling during this sequence. Whilst I can understand why Lifeboat isn’t considered as one of Hitchcock’s classic offerings I’m still glad that I watched the movie as it provides context on where the director honed the ideas he would later elaborate on in some of his more iconic pictures.
That’s it for the Hitchcock triple bill and as for me I’m going on a brief hiatus from this particular blog but will return soon with another triple bill from another of my favourite directors who helmed some of my favourite films of the forties, fifties and sixties.