Hitchcock Shows His Craft
Do you know what is interesting about Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat"? It's not that it is a misunderstood propaganda movie, or that we have Hitchcock exploring telling a story from the confinement of one small location. Nope what is interesting is watching how the characters aboard the lifeboat change as their chance of survival disappears becoming more honest and open with each other, yet when a glimmer of hope appears and they revert back to their old ways. That isn't to say that the whole misunderstood propaganda side of the movie or Hitchcock exploring confinement isn't interesting because it is, it's just not as fascinating as watching the characters change.
Following a skirmish between a freighter and a German U-boat both end up sunk. One by one the survivors from the freighter gather on the only lifeboat not destroyed by the Germans and they try to deal with what little they have. But they also find themselves accompanied by a German, Willie (Walter Slezak - The Inspector General) the Captain of the U-boat and as the only real seaman their best chance of survival, if the Americans and British survivors can agree on whether he should be allowed to live and help or be thrown back over to die.
So for those who don't know "Lifeboat" was a propaganda movie made during the war but it was one which didn't go down too well because of the way that Willie the German captain was portrayed. Here we have a man who is superior to all the other passengers, he is more skilled, more intelligent and has an almost superman style quality as he keeps on going as others around him suffer. Yes he may have been a cheat, manipulating the other passengers for his own gain and stealing supplies but he basically out smarted the American and British survivors and people didn't like this. But then you have the flip side of this because what "Hitchcock" was saying was that in Willie was a man who had one goal and did what ever was needed to achieve it whilst the other survivors wasted time and energy by being divided, people couldn't see this at the time and "Lifeboat" didn't go down very well.
There is of course another fascinating element to "Lifeboat" and that is we have a movie which is set entirely on a small boat, an extraordinarily confined space. Yet Hitchcock makes this lifeboat feel so large because he manages to bring the drama and tension of the confinement to life. When the survivors pick up the German you can feel the division forming and the boat feeling small as Kovac wants to throw the German over. But then as they slowly begin to trust Willie, as he appears to help them be it operating on Gus's gangrenous leg or taking control of the boat in the storm it feels large. And as the lifeboat starts to feel bigger the drama happens in different parts and it makes it feel even larger. Basically despite being a movie confined to one location Hitchcock managed to deliver a movie which not only highlights the confinement yet also makes it feel expansive.
But what I like the most about "Lifeboat" is the way some of the characters change. When we meet her reporter Connie Porter she loves her possessions, she is taking photos of one of the survivors swimming to the boat rather than helping and as we watch everything for her is about her stuff. But piece by piece she loses it, her camera, her fur, her brandy, even her typewriter all gets lost at sea and she mourns their loss. But as she loses hope as well we see the real Connie come to the surface. In different ways we also watch how businessman Charles S. Rittenhouse and engineer John Kovac also change. It is for me this side of "Lifeboat", the way the shed their protective facade to reveal the real person which makes it so entertaining.
What is for certain is there is not a bad performance in "Lifeboat" and each of the small cast deliver believable characters be it Hume Cronyn as the dependable Sparky Garett or Mary Anderson as young nurse Alice MacKenzie. But in reality there are a couple of performances which stand out with both Tallulah Bankhead as Connie and Walter Slezak as Willie dominating all their scenes. Connie maybe an over the top character but Tallulah brings it too life and it makes her softening when she loses everything so much more dramatic. And Slezak does deliver on the superman like quality of Willie as in single minded focus and an unrelenting strength to keep on going.
What this all boils down to is that "Lifeboat" is another brilliant Hitchcock movie and in many ways the equal of his better known movies such as "Psycho" and "Vertigo". It may have been as a propaganda film but it stands on its own feet as a fascinating drama with Hitchcock showing great skill in making a confined space feel so large.