The 1944 film, Lifeboat, might easily be categorized as your generic war movie showing how Allied lives are at the mercy of Nazi Germany. However this tale, written by Jo Swerling [based on a story by John Steinbeck] and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is more than just propaganda. Its a dissection of human spirit and fortitude as a group of survivors are thrown together in a claustrophobic hell that is, somewhat, of their own making.
The entire film takes place in a lifeboat as passengers of a doomed ship find themselves adrift on the high seas. One of the lifeboatís occupants is the very man who caused their predicament: a German U-boat captain whose submarine torpedoed their vessel. Captain Willy (Walter Slezak) appears, at first, to be the "black hat" of this war-era film but Hitchcock has other ideas for him. Instead of being portrayed as the distinct villain of all humanity, Willy proves to be the one person who may be the others only chance of survival.
The passengers: Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is a worldly journalist of high-society fame who prizes her possessions and believes herself a cut above the others. During their ordeal, she loses her valuables to the sea and finds herself in a reversal of character by offering her last possession (a fancy bracelet) as bait for a fishing line. Her main opposition comes from John Kovac (John Hodiak) a ship worker whose torso is tattooed with ex-girlfriendsí initials. According to Kovac, the war is but a show for Connie so she has something to write about. Despite their varying views from love to politics, they soon find themselves in each otherís arms during the height of a horrific storm.
Also aboard is "everyman" Gus Smith (William Bendix). A simple seaman who longs for his girl Rosie and their dancing days. Unfortunately for Gus, he has suffered a severe wound to his right leg and itís up to the others to amputate it before the gangrene does him in. Caring for him is Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), an officer and nurse who finds she cannot heal her own wounds; that of a love for a married man. Rounding out the cast is Charles D. 'Ritt' Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) - wealthy industrialist and owner of various factories which support the war effort, Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn) - ship's radio operator turned lifeboat navigator, and George "call me Joe" Spencer (Canada Lee) - ex-pickpocket who now seeks a better way of life.
As mentioned earlier, Lifeboat could easily be portrayed as propaganda fluff - but itís not. The way in which the German is depicted is rather blasphemous in such a perilous time when the Nazis were anything but saviors. Willy, not your stereotypical goon, is a capable seaman (where the others are completely incompetent), a skilled surgeon (he performs the amputation on Gusís leg), multiple linguist, and the only one who keeps his head when a storm threatens to destroy their lifeboat. Not going completely against the feelings of the time, Willy has his dark side too. He manipulates the others, holds out information and water, and causes the death of one of the boatís occupants. When the others learn of his deceptions, they transform into a mob and brutally kill the one man who may have been their only hope of survival.
With its confined quarters and drama created without flashback, Lifeboat reads more like a stage play than a motion picture. In the capable hands of Hitchcock though, it is hardly a tale of just words. The film is a superb character study on how individuals, despite their political beliefs, behave in a life and death situation. And if anyone might have fallen asleep during the long second act of dialogue, Hitch tosses in an explosive twist near the end.
RATING: 7.5 (of 10).
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