Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Jo Swerling (story by John Steinbeck)
Stars: Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), Walter Slezak (Willy), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles D. “Ritt” Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higgins), Hume Cronyn (Stanley “Sparks” Garrett), Canada Lee (George “Joe” Spencer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1944
Country: U.S.
Lifeboat DVD
Row, row, row your boatAlfred Hitchcock always loved technical and narrative challenges, and in Lifeboat, his seventh American film and the first and only he made under Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox, he faced daunting obstacles in both. Telling the story of nine survivors of a U-Boat attack in the middle of the Atlantic, Lifeboat takes place entirely inside the titular vessel, with Hitchcock’s camera straying outside only once in a couple of underwater shots showing a fish. Otherwise, his camera is firmly planted inside the 40-foot lifeboat, putting the viewer right in the middle of the struggle for survival.

Unlike most of Hitchcock’s films, Lifeboat is not a thriller, per se. Granted, it has elements of the thriller, particularly the inevitable suspense generated when a group of people are fighting for their lives against both the elements and each other. There are also bits of action--a storm that threatens to capsize the boat, an explosive battle between an Allied ship and a German supply ship. However, these are the exception, rather then the norm, and the majority of the film is spent depicting the personalities of the nine survivors and how they interact and oftentimes clash. Each of the characters represents a type, from the pretentious photojournalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), to the good ol’ boy American Gus Smith (William Bendix), to the proletarian John Kovac (John Hodiak), to the wealthy industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull).

One of the film’s central tensions involves the last survivor to be picked up, Willy (Walter Slezak), who turns out to be a member of the German U-Boat crew that was responsible for sinking the merchant marine ship on which the others were traveling. The others aren’t sure whether or not they can trust Willy, even though his survival is incumbent on theirs. Hitchcock cannily dodges and ducks around whether or not Willy is friend or foe, which is aided in no small part by a great performance by Slezak, who turns from charming and helpful to sly and duplicitous with the slightest changes in his face.

Unfortunately, Hitchcock’s depiction of Willy aroused controversy and criticism when the film was released in 1944, right in the middle of World War II. Hitchcock’s thematic intention was to make the film as an allegory for the war, with the eight American and British survivors representing the disorganized efforts by the Allies and Willy representing the organized, calculating nature of the Third Reich. In a sense, the film portrays Willy as a superior character--physically and mentally--which is what set off so many critics who saw the film as being virtually pro-Nazi.

What they ignored, however, was that Willy’s superiority came at the price of morality and humanity. Of course, this could easily be overlooked because the film’s depiction of all the characters ultimately robs them of morality, as they eventually devolve into “a pack of wild dogs,” to use Hitchcock’s phrase. It is easy to see why so many saw the film as a general indictment of humanity, with each character (with the possible exception of the black steward, Joe, played by Canada Lee) ultimately getting blood on his or her hands. In this case, Hitchcock’s dark irony and views on human fallibility may have gotten in the way of his intended message.

Lifeboat Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Drew Casper
  • “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War” making of featurette
  • Stills gallery
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 18, 2005

    As the last of Hitchcock’s films to make it to DVD, Lifeboat has become the final piece of the puzzle for Hitchcock completists. The new transfer is quite good for a film of its age, but it is admittedly inconsistent and shows some significant damage inherent to the source print. Particularly during the first 15 minutes, there is noticeable light spotting on the image (the result of nitrate decomposition), which is persistent and substantial enough that digital removal would have likely made it worse. The overall image is fairly gray, without a great deal of contrast, which tends to make it look a bit soft. The latter half of the film looks quite a bit better than the first half, though, with stronger detail and contrast and less softness. Given the age and condition of the source print, the transfer probably couldn’t look any better without massive and expensive restoration.

    The soundtrack is available in both Dolby Digital stereo and monaural mixes. Both sound clean, although they are understandably limited by the source materials. The music over the opening credits sounds a bit tinny, but the dialogue and sound effects that predominate throughout the film are very good.

    Drew Casper, who holds the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Chair in the Department of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, contributes his thoughts on the film in a screen-specific audio commentary. Casper clearly believes the film to be a masterpiece, which he states outright early in the track. While his delivery style has an slightly somnambulistic quality to it, his commentary on this often overlooked film is definitely worth a listen.

    Also on the disc is a 20-minute retrospective featurette about the making of the film. The interviewees are restricted largely to Casper and Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughter, and it goes through the most well-known aspects of the making of the film (including the legendary response Hitchcock gave when someone complained about Tallulah Bankhead not wearing any underwear). The only other supplement is a photo gallery.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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