US (1944) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
In the early days of British television, it was said the cheapest and easiest play to make a drama from was a limited cast of people in a singular location, like being stuck in a lift. Trust Alfred Hitchcock to subvert this simple idea by making that singular setting be a cramped lifeboat at sea – and STILL make a tense drama out of it!
World War II and a German U-boat attacks a regular ship in the North Atlantic sinking both vessels. A handful of survivors making it to a lifeboat – columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), ship crew members John Kovac (John Hodiak), Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn) and injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), US army nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), British mother Miss. Higley (Heather Angel), and ship steward Charles “Joe” Spencer (Canada Lee).
The group is rounded off by wealthy industrialist Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), and finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), one of the survivors of the German U-boat that caused this predicament. Tensions run high as many feel Willi should be thrown back into the sea while others think he should stand trial once they are rescued. But survival is their primary concern – if they can survive each other.
Hitchcock himself conceived the idea for Lifeboat but the story and script was written by John Steinbeck, who planned it as a novella although his literary agent rejected the idea. When Steinbeck saw the film he was happy with some of the changes and tried to get his name removed from it; the fact his name is as big as Hitchcock’s on all credits and promotional materials was probably a dig at this.
Coming just a year before the end of the war allows Hitchcock to expand upon the basic human drama of disparate and often combustible personalities trapped together in close quarters will some timely commentary on the war itself. As you might expect, the central conceit throughout is the trustworthyness of Willi, the lone German and default outlier of the group, and Hitch masterfully milks this for all it is worth.
One might accuse the anti-German sentiment of being laid on a bit thick, and let’s be frank, at this point in time there was good reason, but the script does show the good old civilised Americans rising above such blind hatred to show some humanity to someone who previously showed none to them as the better people. It’s a divisive issue but in true democratic fashion, Willi escapes being jettisoned.
Ironically, the US German Gus Smith who admits he changed his name from Schmitt so he wouldn’t be lumped in with the Nazis, doesn’t speak German but the well-travelled, high maintenance Connie does which helps break that barrier down. Willi insists he was merely a marine following orders which eases the tension but his knowledge of medical and nautical procedures are a bit too advanced for a low ranking scrub.
The films actually begins with the ship being sunk but only in close-up as we see a smokestack funnel slowly topple over followed by a tracking shot of items scattered in the sea. Connie is sat alone on the lifeboat, impeccably attired in furs and diamonds and surrounded by her belongings but you know they won’t last long, yet her sole concern throughout the film is her appearance, not necessarily out of vanity, more out of pride.
Naturally, the others are less concerned about how they look and let Connie be, just as Ritt has his unlit cigar and Joe his penny whistle. The latter is black therefore the servant which Steinbeck objected to as he wrote Joe as an erudite man of dignity. Joe isn’t a period stereotype negro though, but is a former pickpocket, which comes in handy later on, but generally shows a strong moral standing.
Arguably the bleakest character is Miss. Higley. She is brought on board with her baby who is already dead but being so shell shocked she doesn’t seem able to acknowledge this, making it very difficult for the others to keep up the pretence, not knowing how badly she’ll take it. Whilst a brief chapter in this story, it serves to remind us that acts of war are indiscriminate towards age when claiming victims, and how far reaching the consequences are.
For the most part, the politics of war slip quietly on to the backburner as the focus turns to survival, covering the usual peaks and troughs of leadership tussles, petty squabbles, surprise romances, even an emergency amputation. Steinbeck was an astute observer of human behaviour as we know from such novels as Of Mice And Men and this shines through in the rag tag cast created here.
Originally to be an all male cast of unknowns, this decision was thankfully reversed not just giving these character actors a chance to have the spotlight but also the legendary Tallulah Bankhead the one major film hit that had eluded her. A star of the stage and film with a noted colourful personality Bankhead took this opportunity with both hands and made this film her own even if Connie is her with the volume turned down!
We know from later films like Rope that Hitchcock could make the single location film work but that was inside an apartment, not the North Atlantic. Granted this was shot in a studio water tank but the awkward framing and tight camera angles make us believe they are at sea. And this doesn’t stop Hitch from creating tension from nothing – even eschewing a musical soundtrack – to make this a bumpy ride in more ways than one.
Lifeboat has long been considered an overlooked entry into Hitchcock’s extensive canon which is quite criminal given its superiority over many of his more noted works. That might sound like hyperbole but once the end credits roll, do we realise that in spite of its simplicity, this truly is proof of a master at work.