Lifeboat – Alfred Hitchcock
It is soon apparent that Willy is the only one aboard who has any knowledge of seamanship; when the lifeboat almost capsizes, he is the only one to act. After several days, the survivors reluctantly concede to his taking charge. Kovac, the Communist from South Chicago, is most adamantly against Willy, but group survival overrules his objections. As the film progresses, we see that Kovac’s political prejudices are as singleminded as those of Willy. Furthermore, tycoon Rittenhouse is a determined Fascist.
The interaction of these diverse characters creates what dramatic intensity there is in Lifeboat, and Hitchcock’s orchestration of their actions and reactions prevents them froth being merely stock stereotypes. Joe Spencer is presented as a Christian man rather than the usual cliched black, and Willy, while cunning and singleminded, is not without charm and courage.
The day-by-day ordeal of surviving on the lifeboat with little food and water and fighting the elements causes the survivors to strike out against one another; yet the experience demands that they pull together to keep alive. Willy is the only passenger who remains calm throughout. Unbeknownst to his fellow passengers he has extra water and a compass. They discover that instead of heading for Bermuda as they had thought, Willy is steering them toward the safety of a German supply ship. Proving Hitchcock’s thesis that they must, but will not, forget their differences and pull together, the eight passengers accept their fate in the hands of the Nazi, as if to admit that survival in a concentration camp would be better than death at sea.
Despite the single setting, the somewhat stereotypical characters, and the absence of a musical score (Hitchcock used only the sounds of the sea in the film), the realities with which the passengers are forced to deal prevent cinematic stasis. The passengers comfort Mrs. Higgins by wrapping her in Connie’s fur coat, and when she is asleep they throw the dead child into the sea. Later, out of despair over her loss, Mrs. Higgins commits suicide by jumping into the sea still wearing Connie’s prized possession.
Gus, the Brooklyn seaman whose leg has been seriously injured when the freighter was torpedoed, is diagnosed by Willy as having gangrene. Again the passengers are unable to pull together and amputate Gus’s leg, and Willy is left to perform the primitive and gruesome operation. In one of the screen’s most terrifying scenes, we see Willy give Gus some whiskey, the only thing aboard approaching medicine, and sterilize the jackknife to perform the necessary surgery.