Starring-Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak
Scott’s Review #1,020
Reviewed May 6, 2020
Alfred Hitchcock, well-known for big, bouncy, suspenseful productions, creates a stripped-down, intimate story of adventures while adrift on a survival boat, leaving plenty of tension and peril. Lifeboat (1944), now teetering on extinction from memory save for fans of the director, deserves appreciation and respect for the brilliant direction and wonderful cinematography alone. The film was met with controversy and some derision for sympathetic depictions of a German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) amid the horrors of World War II.
Events begin in the middle of calm Atlantic Oceanic waters after a dastardly battle results in a German U-boat and a British/American ship sinking each other, leaving fewer than a dozen civilians and service members to survive in one lifeboat. The snooty and glamorous columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), clad in the finest fur coat around, is irritated by a run in her stocking, a travesty in her mind. She is slowly joined by other survivors including a young British woman with a dead baby, a steward, a U.S. Army nurse (Mary Anderson), a wealthy entrepreneur, and other people from most walks of life.
Lifeboat plays out like a more cerebral version of a disaster film. Think- a smart man’s version of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which is said with love since it’s one of my favorite films. But with Lifeboat, there is a darkness and a sadness missing from 1970’s disaster films that were more lightweight. The black-and-white camerawork helps tremendously as does the mist, the rain, and even the strong beating sun. The weather elements play an important role and are characters themselves.
Speaking of characters, the individuals are plentiful and diverse, ranging from British, American, Black, German, wealthy and working-class, to eventually dead and alive with a gruesome leg amputation taking place mid-stream. Each is well-written, exhibiting fear, bravery, and suspicion of the other’s motivations, especially the German captain who communicates in native tongue with Connie, causing conjecture among the other survivors.
Events would hardly be complete without a good melodramatic romance and such is the treat to see two formulate. Connie and handsome John (John Hodiak) share a love/hate relationship, clearly from opposite backgrounds, while the more stable Alice and Stanley (Hume Cronyn) even decide to marry! Genteel Alice reveals a marriage and an affair to Stanley uncovering layers and a complexity to the character.
My favorite character is Connie, and Bankhead is a pure delight in the bitchy, no-nonsense role. She enshrouds the camera from the first scene. Reminiscent of Bette Davis, the actress has a similar composure, stance, and trademark cigarette, but slowly reveals her insecurities and desperation. What fun she is to watch!
A tender and poignant scene occurs at the end of the film and is lovely to witness especially given the tumultuous time of the mid 1940’s. A drifting young German soldier attempts to board and shoot at the survivors but is apprehended. Disputes occur, but instead of shooting or casting the lad over board to drown, he is saved and presumably provided food and water. He inquires why they don’t kill him? The message is powerful and anti-war.
The direction methods are brilliant, looking as realistic as anything could in 1940’s cinema where CGI was decades away. Hitchcock had me fooled as I bought lock, stock, and barrel that the lifeboat was in the middle of rough and murky waters instead of a Hollywood studio tub. The creative method of getting so many characters into one shot wonderfully and effectively provides a claustrophobic feel as the lack of food and drinking water causes hysteria and emotion. The one-set approach is marvelous and perfect for the film’s specific story line.
After decades of underexposure and playing second or third fiddle to other Hitchcock masterpieces, Lifeboat (1944) is finally getting a bit of notice and acclaim. Here’s to hoping the trend will continue as the film contains enough frights and perils to keep anyone guessing which characters will sink and which will swim. Perhaps not the best watch on a cruise ship or other watery surfaces, the escapade will delight most fans of classic black-and-white thrill cinema.
Oscar Nominations: Best Director- Alfred Hitchcock, Best Original Story, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White