A lesser-known Hitchcock movie about survivors of a German U-boat attack during World War II, this tense survival thriller, set almost entirely aboard a tiny lifeboat, definitely deserves more love and attention.
I’ve never heard of this film prior to watching a YouTube video about Tallulah Bankhead, an American stage and screen actress from the classic era famous for her husky voice, scandalous lifestyle and devastating wit (My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine). Her outrageous, unapologetic personality was partly the reason why she never became a big film star like Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford, but it was also the case of Hollywood never figuring out quite what to do with her. The video mentioned Lifeboat as one of the very few films that managed to successfully utilise her talents and persona, so being a fan of Hitchcock I was keen to watch it.
Similar to Rope and Rear Window, Lifeboat is another of Hitchcock’s experiments with a limited setting, this time concerning a group of nine survivors stranded in the middle of the ocean after their ship is sunk by a German U-boat. The first image of the lifeboat is deliciously incongruous: Tallulah Bankhead’s glamorous newspaper columnist, Connie Porter, sitting cool as a cucumber in her mink coat, her immaculate hair and make-up untouched by the destruction. Later on a few more passengers find their way onboard, including a few crewmen, a black steward, a wealthy industrialist and a nurse.
The spiciest survivor is Willi, the German captain of the submarine which caused all this turmoil, whose presence instantly ignites tensions among the rest. A couple of men want to throw him overboard immediately, but they’re overruled by the more soft-hearted members of the group, who insist on treating a prisoner of war decently and humanely. Unfortunately for them, Willi (played by Walter Slezak as an intriguing mix of jolliness and menace) has no intentions of reciprocating niceties, and would rather get back to his own supply ship.
Thanks to Hitchcock’s cinematic ingenuity and some very careful planning, the claustrophobic setting of a lifeboat feels much bigger than it actually is; there’s also some striking black-and-white cinematography and an eerily effective absence of musical score. Granted, some aspects of the film feel dated and stagey, including a hilariously unrealistic leg amputation, but I didn’t hold it too much against it. On other occasions I wished that the movie wasn’t committed to realism quite as much, with the simulated up-and-down bobbing of the boat on the ocean waves not doing wonders for my motion sickness.
As promised by the YouTube video, Bankhead’s performance in the movie is dynamite. Connie is poised, elegant, self-assured to the point of arrogance. There’s a callous, selfish streak in her; when one of the survivors swims desperately towards the lifeboat, she coolly takes a photo of him before helping the man onboard. At other times, she shows a kinder, softer side, and also develops a steamy love-hate relationship with a hunky engine-room crewman with socialist tendencies, who spends a lot of the movie shirtless. In the tradition of the era, in order to get her man Connie of course must be humbled and lose her prized possessions – her camera, typewriter, mink coat, diamond bracelet – one by one.
With the ensemble as a social microcosm, there’s some further exploration of class and race; as the movie goes on the class structure is flipped on its head and a working man takes charge. Though like many onscreen black characters of the time Joe the steward remains mostly silent, there’s a memorable moment when the lifeboat members ask for his opinion on whether Willi should be spared. “I get to vote too?” asks Joe, with a mix of sarcasm and incredulity.
At the time of its release – in 1944, before the end of the war – Hitchcock’s movie was apparently quite controversial. The critics of the film felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of a German captain as the strongest and most capable character onboard; next to his single-minded determination, the representatives of the Allies look weaker for their endless bickering and lack of seamanship. But of course a thriller is all the better for having a cunning and formidable enemy that the heroes must eventually overcome.
At one point, I paused the streaming to make myself a cup of tea and was shocked to discover that while the lifeboat lot were still deep in their predicament, there was only nine minutes of the movie left. So in addition to the previously mentioned clunky elements, the ending feels way too abrupt and almost comically overstuffed. Despite these weaknesses, Lifeboat is still a solid, gripping survival movie that doesn’t deserve its relative obscurity. And Tallulah Bankhead was something, for sure.