(1944) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Jo Swerling; Story by John Steinbeck; Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Canada Lee and Hume Cronyn; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“The intent of Lifeboat truly was the war in microcosm. In other words, at the beginning of the war, the Russians weren’t in, the Americans weren’t in, and until all these nations could get together, the prospects for democracy were dim. That was the whole symbol of Lifeboat.” – Alfred Hitchcock (from 1973 interview “Conversation with Alfred Hitchcock,” by Arthur Knight, excerpted from Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb)
Alfred Hitchcock had an uncanny knack for pushing his characters (and sometimes by default, his actors) to the breaking point, until their raw emotions and motivations were revealed. To this end, Lifeboat answers the question: what’s left when the vestiges of civilization are gradually peeled away? Trapped within the limited confines of a lifeboat,* our characters are forced to confront each other, their respective prejudices and ideologies. Bereft of elaborate sets or sweeping vistas, Hitchcock was left to corral his assembly of characters into an impossibly tight space. The torturous shoot tested the fortitude of the cast,** incorporating thousands of gallons of water to simulate the stormy sea.
* According to the Blu-ray commentary by Tim Lucas, four boats were constructed for the purposes of filming: two whole, and two split in half, for obtaining the best shooting angles.
** Not So Fun Fact: Hume Cronyn cracked two ribs, and nearly drowned during one of the storm scenes. Tallulah Bankhead, who was continually drenched in water, contracted pneumonia.
Lifeboat wastes no time plunging us into the middle of the drama, as the smokestack of a sinking merchant marine ship, stricken by a German U-boat, plunges into the depths. Our focus is directed to several items of floating debris, including the body of a German U-boat crewman (the attacking ship fared no better). Our eyes then move toward a lifeboat, crewed by a solitary survivor, plucky veteran reporter Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead). Things are about to get much more crowded for the reporter, as several survivors locate the lifeboat. The dramatis personae include: John Kovac, an engine room mechanic (John Hodiak), Gus, a merchant seaman (William Bendix) with a wounded leg, Charles J. Rittenhouse, a wealthy industrialist (Henry Hull), “Sparks,” a radio operator (Hume Cronyn), Joe, a ship’s steward (Canada Lee), and Alice, a young idealistic nurse (Mary Anderson). They’re joined by Mrs. Highley, a traumatized young mother (Heather Angel) with her deceased infant. One additional guest rounds out the motley group, Willi (Walter Slezak), a sailor from the U-boat.
Connie Porter is the most fascinating character among the menagerie of personalities. When we’re initially introduced to her, she appears self-serving and opportunistic, looking for the big scoop amidst the death and confusion. As her physical possessions are stripped away one by one, we begin to see the real person underneath. Her callous, entitled persona is part of an elaborate façade she’s built over time, as a woman who had to be tough (and sometimes ruthless) to climb to the top of the heap in a male-dominated world. At one point, we learn that she shared the same humble Chicago origins as Kovac, but fabricated a new, more cosmopolitan persona over the years. Beneath this polished exterior, with her mink coat and diamond bracelet, resides a vulnerable persona. As the prospect of rescue looms her vanity returns like a security blanket, to shield her from the horrors she’s witnessed.
* Not Quite Fun Fact: Lifeboat enjoyed its share of behind-the-scenes friction, thanks to Bankhead, who took the film’s story to heart a bit too seriously. The actress, who had a reputation for being outspoken, saved her worst for the Austrian-born co-star Slezak (who had strong anti-Nazi sentiments), hurling epithets at him.
In contrast to many of the other characters, Willi, whom we discover is the U-boat commander, seems the most immutable. Hitchcock dismissed criticisms that the film took a pro-German stance by depicting him as the most competent of the group, stating that Willi, as an experienced submariner, was the most qualified for the job. Kovac, while strong-willed, lacks the navigational savvy or even-headed disposition to lead the survivors to safety. Of course, it could be argued that Willi knows his job a little too well. The rest of the survivors conclude he’s setting them on a course to rendezvous with a German supply ship (instead of Bermuda) and an uncertain future. Despite his ulterior motives, he’s far from the sneering villain, extolling a cheerful demeanor and willingness to help. Underneath his affable exterior, however, lurks a cool, calculating mind, that won’t hesitate to sacrifice his new companions if it will benefit him.
Hitchcock presents for our consideration a study of different perspectives. Kovac and Rittenhouse are ideological opposites, as the communist and fascist, respectively. Most of the others, minus Willi, are somewhere between. We can find aspects to identify with many of the characters, who are not merely representative of the conflicts between countries, but within ourselves. Most of us can probably relate to Gus or Kovac, or even Rittenhouse, on some level. Hitchcock brings ugly truths to the surface, underscored by the conflicting voices when no one can reach a consensus. This indecision is exemplified by the scene where the survivors decide on a leader. Kovac wrests control from Rittenhouse, but when he’s finally in command, he’s not sure where to lead them. This opens the door for Willi to surreptitiously take charge. The scene illustrates how anger and idealism can only take you so far. Without reason and a clear plan, you’re doomed to remain adrift.
The theme of loss weighs heavily in Lifeboat’s story. Porter isn’t the only person who’s lost something valuable. William Bendix gives us a multi-faceted, sympathetic performance as Gus Smith, an affable big lug with a bigger heart. He just wants to get back to the States, so he can dance with his sweetheart, Rosie. He harbors insecurities about his injuries, afraid she may not want him minus one leg. The tension mounts when the survivors, under Willi’s direction, are forced to amputate Gus’ leg (offscreen), sans anesthetic. Mrs. Highley represents the cost of the war in terms of lives and mental health. Even Willi has lost something, having left behind a practice as an M.D. before becoming a U-boat commander.
Lifeboat rivals Rope and Rear Window as one of Hitchcock’s most confining films. We’ve established our MacGuffin with Connie Porter,* but how could Hitchcock possibly insert a cameo, given the limited parameters of the film’s setting? He finds a novel approach to the problem, appearing in a newspaper ad. Lifeboat never lets us off the hook keeping us consistently engaged from beginning to conclusion. The audience remains stuck on a boat for nearly 100 minutes, but within the characters lie a world of possibilities.
* Perhaps a character isn’t a MacGuffin in the traditional sense, but our first impression of Porter isn’t an accurate assessment. As a result, I opine the character serves as Hitchcock’s red herring.