After their ship is sunk in the Atlantic by Germans, eight people are stranded in a lifeboat, among them a glamorous journalist , a tough seaman, a nurse and an injured sailor. Their problems are further compounded when they pick up a ninth passenger – the Nazi captain from the U-boat that torpedoed them. With its powerful interplay of suspense and emotion, this legendary classic is a microcosm of humanity, revealing the subtleties of man’s strengths and frailties under extraordinary duress.
eyelights: the splendid cast. the slowly simmering tension. the script’s many messages.
eyesores: some of the more theatrical performances. the way the African-American character was written.
“Dying together’s even more personal than living together.”
While watching ‘Life of Pi‘, I couldn’t help but think of ‘Lifeboat’. The whole sequence on the high seas wasn’t entirely dissimilar, if one substituted a pack of wild animals for a pack of disparate survivors, that is. I had finally picked up the DVD recently, after many years of eyeing it but not actually getting around to it.
I decided that it was time.
I had only seen ‘Lifeboat’ once before, in 2008, after borrowing the library’s VHS copy (that’s all they had!). I was quite impressed with it. While it wasn’t as memorable as some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other pictures, it was certainly a solid entry. Why it wasn’t more highly regarded was completely beyond me.
It turns out that there may be two factors for ‘Lifeboat’ being relegated to relative obscurity:
1) While he did a string of films with Warner Bros. and another with Universal Pictures (where he made some of his most popular ones), ‘Lifeboat’ is the lone film that Hitchcock made with 20th Century Fox. This means that it’s lost in the shuffle, not benefiting from cross-marketing like the other ones do; it won’t be in boxed sets, has no other Hitchcock film to tie it to, nothing. It’s adrift on the home video seas.
2) It was a box office failure at the time. Released in 1944, there was much controversy surrounding the portrayal of a German character in the lifeboat. Because of the backlash, the studio decided to shelve its plans for a full scale roll-out: it reduced its publicity budget and only did a limited release. Despite the criticism, it was nominated for a number of awards, including four Academy Awards. But it would not be seen by as many filmgoers.
For those two reasons alone, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Lifeboat’ doesn’t immediately come to mind when one think of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. There may be other reasons, but whatever they may be it’s a darn shame, for this motion picture is as superbly-crafted and tense a film as any that the “Master of Suspense” ever made.
It’s a pretty simple concept: a handful of American and British passengers and crew find themselves stranded on a lifeboat after their ship is sunk by a German U-boat. Also lost in combat, the U-boat leaves behind one survivor, who quickly makes his way to the lifeboat – much to the dismay of some of its current occupants.
The picture starts with images of last few moments of a sinking ship, and consists one set: the lifeboat, upon which our protagonists are found. It’s a story of survival that examines and contrasts the characters’ backgrounds all the while discussing issues of morality and responsibility in a war-time context.
There are a few notable debates between the characters, with many taking different positions – some more nuanced than others. It was interesting to see how some were responding with their guts more, whereas others empathized more, some were non-committal, and some took their time to weigh the issues before making a decision.
The inflamed discussion about throwing the German overboard was a key moment, of course. There was a question of Christian values, of treating him as a prisoner of war (with all the responsibility that this entails), of exacting meta-vengeance, …etc. It was quite the dilemma – especially in 1944, after all that had transpired.
Tension-filled as it is, ‘Lifeboat’ still has a few lighter moments up its sleeve. There’s Hitch’s traditional cameo appearance, of course, which is amusingly grafted onto a newspaper. There’s also our high society lead’s gradual loss of all her belongings (camera, mink coat, typewriter, bracelet, …etc.) in various mishaps.
Speaking of our lead, Tallulah Bankhead, I have never seen her in any other picture, and knew very little about her until writing this blurb (I often read a little bit of background stuff before writing), but I was utterly taken with her and her character. He acting style is from a different era, of course, but she was more subtle than some.
What I especially liked about this on-screen persona (I don’t know which comes from the actress, which from the script) is that she was an intelligent, confident, capable, classy, sexy, and proud character – but not too proud. And she never lost her cool. It’s one of those early strong female archetypes, much like the ones Katharine Hepburn did.
Apparently she was quite the character off-screen as well; numerous biographies have been written about her. She was unapologetically sexual, for one, at a time when women were expected to be demure. It is said that she did not wear undergarments during the shooting of ‘Lifeboat’, eliciting applause each she climbed the ladder up to the set.
She was the stand out of the piece for me. There was this terrific speech that she made after they decided to dump the German about how they just sat there, letting him lead them despite their hatred or reservations. It was a great metaphor for what had happened during World War II, and I thought that it was a nice touch.
The screenplay was commissioned from none other than John Steinbeck himself. It was re-written by a number of other writers, and Steinbeck was unhappy with the end result, asking to have his name removed from the credits. The producers refused. Even today his name is listed on the DVD cover – a rare time when the writer is even acknowledged.
A man with leftist ideals, he particularly objected to a comment that was made against unions, and disliked the way the African-American character was portrayed – as a token character, quite unlike the way he had originally written him. He said that his story had a “Negro of dignity, purpose and personality”. Not here.
Admittedly that is, for me, one of the most head-scratching parts of the film: Joe could be an interesting figure, given that he’s one of only nine on a small boat, but he always remains in the background, having little opinion and being submissive, always doing what the others ask him to do – as though he were subject to their will.
A part of me wrote it off as being a product of its time, and that it would have been unusual to find a willful, independent African-American character on the silver screen in his stead in 1944, but it bugged me. Canada Lee, who played Joe, was allowed to adapt his lines; he claims to have tried to round out the character but failed.
Still, it’s a decent part, as were all of them. The cast was also generally quite good, and played off of each other really well. Of all of them, I must admit that my favourite has got to be Walter Slezak as Willi, the German. He was by far the most natural of the lot, and effortlessly gave the character dignity and a subtle shrewdness.
It’s hard to discuss a film like ‘Lifeboat’ without spoiling anything, given how little plot there is; it’s one of those movies that are driven by dialogue, emotion and performances. Almost anything I divulge would deflate Hitchcock’s skillful building of tension. So I’d recommend just seeing it; it’s an excellent motion picture.
In my estimation, it should be a more recognized and acclaimed title. It certainly deserves the attention.
Date of viewing: April 8, 2014