Lifeboat – Alfred Hitchcock
Following the operation, with the passengers asleep and Willy at the helm, Gus, in his postoperative hallucinations, sees Willy drink from his hidden canteen; Willy, now forced to maintain his cover if any of them are to survive, pushes Gus overboard. When the truth is discovered, the American passengers turn on Willy, in Hitchcock’s words, “like a pack of dogs” and beat him to death. Only Joe refuses to participate in the brutal murder.
The passengers are saved through no plan of their own when an Alliedship destroys the approaching German supply ship and rescues them, but not before a young injured German swims to the lifeboat for safety. When he pulls a pistol on the lifeboat occupants, they disarm him and then, ironically, pull him aboard. Once again Hitchcock’s message is driven home. In order to overpower and destroy the enemy, people must forget their personal differences and join forces.
While Willy, the German, is the catalyst for the action in Lifeboat, it is the superb, offbeat casting of Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter that makes the film memorable. Bankhead’s unique brand of theatrical acting was never used better on the screen. In the microcosm of Hitchcock’s allegory, Connie represents the cynical, materialistic American. As we see her stripped of her possessions—her camera, her typewriter, her fur coat, and finally her prized diamond bracelet, which is used unsuccessfully as bait to catch a fish, she is revealed as a woman of substance and humanity. The script also incorporates the sensual attraction between Connie and Kovac. While drawn to him physically, she reviles his coarseness and his tattooed body by saying, “I never could understand the necessity of making a billboard out of the torso.” Later,she mellows and tattooes her initials on his chest with her lipstick.
Bankhead’s character also provides the only levity among the characters. At the end when they are about to be rescued, she exclaims, “Twenty minutes! Good heavens! My nails, my hair, my face. I’m a mess.” Then seeing Kovac’s dismay, she adds, “Yes, darling, one of my best friends is in the navy!” Although this was Bankhead’s finest screen performance, the Motion Picture Academy overlooked her entirely for a Best Actress nomination. The New York Film Critics, however, did name her Best Actress of 1944.
Lifeboat provided Hitchcock with the problem of how to make his own brief appearance in the film (his well-known “trademark”), since the script called for only one closely integrated set. His solution, his favorite, he says, was to use “before” and “after” photos of himself advertising a diet drug called Redueo. The ad is seen on the back of a newspaper which William Bendix holds at one point inthe film, and Hitchcock said he received hundreds of letters asking where to buy the wonder diet drug. He also appears quite briefly as a dead body floating face down in the water at the beginning of the film.
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