Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Jo Swerling
I’ve seen this film some time before. I can’t even really recall when or why or how I even felt about it. A quick glimpse at Letterboxd tells me I liked it, but my lack of memory tells me I wasn’t blown away by it. With that said, I cannot say the state in which I first saw this film, but seeing it again, I was blown away. It’s unlike so many of Hitchcock’s films in that it has a singular location, making the ensemble feel like a stage play. It contains many of the same elements and themes of many Hitchcock films with which we’re familiar, but the change of setting and circumstances really does offer the film a whole new way to wow us. This is especially true when you consider the ensemble cast, which is terrific. There is hardly an A-lister among them. Some nice performers, but none that would headline an opening. Hitchcock is the star here, and the combination of the ensemble carries the film.
After a Nazi U-boat torpedoes a passenger liner in the Atlantic Ocean, a group of strangers ends up stranded in a singular lifeboat. With little rations, and little hope of being found among the wreckage, they must appoint a leader and do everything they can to stay sane and on each other’s side. The plot thickens even more when they pull a German man out of the water, who is seeking refuge. How the group handles the enemy presence among them splits their loyalties and brings a near mutiny, as they hope to steer their craft toward Bermuda, safety and rescue. The German seems to be best equipped at maritime navigation, but can he be trusted to lead them to safety? Conversely, does being captured by the enemy present a best case scenario for the marooned Americans.
By confining this random group of strangers to a lifeboat, drifting at sea, Hitchcock is able to explore many aspects of the human condition and tendencies. It’s a marvelous examination of what pressure does to the values of seemingly heroic characters. We don’t have much reason to dislike any of them, apart from the brash Kovac (John Hodiak), but as the peril grows, so do tensions and character begins to reveal itself in the form of, perhaps warranted, paranoia and desperation. What is most impressive is the pacing of the film, as we move from interaction to interaction throughout. We are dropped right into the peril with Connie (Tallulah Bankhead) already aboard the lifeboat, and from that moment on there is not a dull moment. What this means is that Hitchcock is able to fill the both the screen and runtime with character development on a boat with 9 passengers. With no time to breath, we’re treated to character moments throughout which endear us to the passengers, even the German sailor, which was likely quite controversial at the time.
So let’s talk about the German (Walter Slezak) because this one is interesting, and quite expertly handled by Hitchcock in my opinion. At first, we’re unsure, is this just a crewman who is following orders, the example of a German who may or may not agree with the aggression and values of Hitler, just following orders? Or could he just be a dirty rotten Nazi? Either way, he’s a human and can’t be killed on the spot, even if that’s what the Nazi’s would do. In this manner, the film presents itself as very moral and patriotic. The characters don’t stoop to the enemies lows. However, when we learn that the German is the captain from the U-boat, everything changes. But should it? Let’s for a moment look at it from the captain’s perspective. He is likely thankful to have been taken in by the Americans, and is in much the same circumstances. His first priority is living, not winning. But when the tables turn and it’s revealed he’s the only one aboard capable of navigating the lifeboat to safety, he gains an upper hand in the battle to bring the passengers to safety on his terms, not theirs. I don’t know whether this is a sympathetic depiction or not, but I found it to be a very human one, which helped fuel the energy of the film.
I think I must have seen this film originally when I was in college, or at the very least much younger, and vastly underestimated the minute details and flourishes on display here. As with this viewing I found it to be consistently engaging throughout, and truly one of Hitchcock’s achievements. But what does that even mean at this point? It’s very early in this Hitchcock marathon and already I’ve seen multiple great entries in addition to the many more we know are yet to come, and the handful of master works from his earlier British days. Perhaps that is why the likes of Lifeboat and Shadow of a Doubt, great films in their own right, are often overshadowed from the larger, more renowned works from Hitchcock. There’s just too many great films in his filmography for them all to earn their due praise as history passes. But Lifeboat is especially interesting given its direct commentary on World War II which was unfolding before the audiences lives in 1944. Looking back, I think I appreciate this film for its themes and craft way more than the first time I watched it. Underappreciated and overlooked indeed.