Lifeboat – Alfred Hitchcock
Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock’s seventh American film, marked a considerable departure from the kind of suspense thriller on which his reputation is based. This nine-character story is remarkable in that it takes place entirely in only one setting, a lifeboat—about as small and claustrophobic a space as ever challenged a film director facing a full-length production. The physical and dramatic limitations of the script present obvious difficulties but it is as if Hitchcock deliberately created this restrictive project to prove that he could overcome its inherent problems.
Hitchcock has always taken chances with his films, and Lifeboat is one of his most challenging undertakings. For the most part, it is a successful one. The story developed from an idea Hitchcock himself conceived and for which he enlisted the literary help of John Steinbeck to develop dramatically. Stein-beck came up with the overall plot and character development in a twenty-page screen treatment, after which Hitchcock hired MacKinlay Kantor (later author of The Best Years of Our Lives) to flesh out a final screenplay. Hitchcock did not like Kantor’s-treatment, however, and turned the project over to Hollywood veteran Jo Swerling (A Man’s Castle, 1933; The Westerner, 1940; Blood and Sand, 1942), who collaborated with both Hitchcock and Steinbeck on the final draft.
The result is a tense drama of characterizations and allegory of the world at war in 1943. Many contemporary critics defined the film by its obvious moral message: “Judge not.” However, years later, Hitchcock, who has always been loathe to define the meanings of his films, explained to French director/critic Francois Truffaut, what indeed, to him, was Lifeboat’s theme:
“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their difference aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination.”
Lifeboat’s nine characters represent a microcosm of the world during World War II: Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a parasitic, luxury-laden journalist; John Kovac (John Hodiak), a crewman from a Marxist freighter; Willy (Walter Slezak), a surgeon and Nazi submarine captain; Gus (William Bendix), the seaman; Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), a naval radio officer; Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), an army nurse; Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a business tycoon and quintessential capitalist; Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), an Englishwoman who is carrying her dead baby; and George “Joe” Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward.
The opening credits move across the screen in front of a sinking ship—a freighter which has been torpedoed by a German submarine—and as the camera moves across floating debris, we see eight survivors climb aboard a lifeboat. The ninth survivor to come aboard is Willy, the only survivor of the U-boat which has sunk the freighter. As his hand comes over the side of the lifeboat, the other passengers help him aboard, to which he responds, “Danke schOn.” As the Allied passengers realize this man is their enemy, the dramatic tension of the picture is set into force. Willy, the Nazi, is the catalyst for all of the film’s action.