Monday, January 17, 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: 'Lifeboat'

Thanks to a sharp script and the deft directorial skills of Alfred Hitchcock, “Lifeboat” is a strong wartime drama that avoids the flag-waving fare found in other films of its time.

Perhaps that’s what kept people away from theaters when it was initially released in 1944, as wartime audiences wanted reinforcement in black-and-white terms, not movies that made you explore the gray areas of human nature. But it’s this examination that gives “Lifeboat” a timeliness that feels fresh today. In a way, it’s an unsettling film because it shows how we haven’t come very far in terms of dealing with people who are different from us.

“Lifeboat” tells the story of a group of survivors from a battle between an American ship and German U-boat, both of which sink. Globe-trotting reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is alone in the lifeboat until others spot her in the mist. She helps aboard a variety of survivors: sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix), whose leg has been badly hurt in the tragedy; crew member John Kovac (John Hodiak), who takes an immediate dislike to Connie’s superior ways; Joe (Canada Lee), an African American steward; Sparks (Hume Cronyn), a journeyman sailor; Alice (Mary Anderson), a volunteer making her way to England; Ritt (Henry Hull), a wealthy American industrialist; and Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), a woman traveling with her baby.

What sets the others on edge is the final survivor they pluck from the water: Willy (Walter Slezak), the captain of the German U-Boat. Kovac wants to throw him overboard immediately; Sparks says Willy is their prisoner and should be handled properly until they are rescued and can hand him over to the authorities. The others agree, although they distance themselves from Willy, wary that they can’t understand him. They also suspiciously eye Connie, who can speak German and can fire off barbs as quickly as a machine gun. Ritt assumes control of the boat until Kovac appoints himself as being in charge.

From the beginning, the story makes interesting observations. As survivors are pulled on board, it’s Connie and Ritt who chat like old friends catching up over a drink, oblivious to the others who are pulling survivors aboard, assessing their health and clearing the debris from the ship. This social distinction initially keeps these groups apart from each other. Even when Ritt starts making decisions, it’s the rich industrialist lording over everyone else. But then, in giving everyone a vote on what happens, Ritt also extends that courtesy to Joe. In 1944, Joe would not have the right to vote in the U.S. So this is a surprising turn than may be lost on modern viewers, one that signals that life will be very different on this boat.

As the days pass, the survivors either work together, pair off in friendships or bicker at each other. The trustworthiness of Willy is constantly debated, with some willing to hate him simply because he is the enemy.

“Lifeboat” unfolds beautifully, and I won’t give away any more. The story was written by John Steinbeck in collaboration with Hitchcock, and Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay. I love the questions they ask, touching on class and race and whether it’s acceptable to hate when you know nothing about the person, regardless of whether it’s wartime. The pacing is perfect, with the action, tension and observations carefully mixed together for maximum interest.

The film was made during the time when Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. When Selznick dissolved Selznick International Pictures by the end of 1940, he packaged his talent and loaned them out to other studios. Therefore, Hitchcock was working all over Hollywood, building on his reputation that started in Hollywood with “Rebecca.”

He most recently completed “Shadow of a Doubt” at Universal, and “Lifeboat” was to be the first of a two-picture deal at 20th Century Fox. He’d also done well with war-themed movies before, such as “Foreign Correspondent” in 1940. But almost from the beginning, Hitchcock and Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck clashed. In fact, the movie took far longer to make than expected, and Zanuck was upset with both the rising costs and a story too hard to market. It didn’t help that many of Zanuck’s leading men were away at war, so the cast was not filled with recognizable names, thus another challenge for selling the film.

In the end, the movie went wildly over-budget, costing more than $1.5 million, and didn’t come close to earning back its cost. Hitchcock did not make that second film for 20th Century, disturbed by the failure of "Lifeboat" to make money.

Meanwhile, the cast (Hodiak and Bankhead with Hitchcock, below) enjoyed working with Hitchcock, even if he was controlling. The entire movie takes place on the lifeboat and was shot in the studio tank, with a lifeguard constantly on duty in case of accidents – which was a good thing when Cronyn fell overboard and was nearly drowned by the machine making waves. The cast all suffered their share of seasickness, as Hitchcock kept the boat moving throughout production.

Hitchcock’s methods may seem rough to some, but the results were brilliant. His direction serves the story and the plot without becoming more important than them, and he seamlessly integrates a variety of shots into the narrative.

For example, the opening credits roll over the sinking of a ship. The camera then pans the water, and just from the debris you know what’s happened. Some objects are domestic, reflecting non-military personnel on board. Then you come across the back of a drowned German in his life jacket, which denotes the Germans also had casualties.

Soon after, the camera finds the lifeboat and Connie sitting alone in it. It's a startling shot, as she’s perfectly coiffed, wearing her mink, her bag by her side, as if she’s waiting for a taxi. She then picks up a camera and begins taking footage of another survivor swimming toward the boat. Hitchcock allows the audience to see this through the viewfinder on the camera.

In another great scene, an approaching storm is nicely juxtaposed with Connie and Kovac fighting. The boat is rolling, and the close-ups of each actor find them swaying within the frame and slightly out of the frame. One scene with a quick rainstorm has the survivors grabbing a tarp to collect the water. Hitchcock focuses on the tarp, with the splattering raindrops coming to a halt and a shadow appearing on the tarp, representing the sun coming out. He then slowly pans up and you see the disappointment and despair in the survivors’ faces.

It’s these kinds of shot selections that makes this boat seem larger that it is, and you forget he was working on a single set. Even the way Hitchcock manages to get his cameo into the movie is ingenious (and you’ll just have to watch to see how he does it).

There’s little musical score here, and that adds to the realistic feel. Another reason I like “Lifeboat” is that it could be set during any war. The World War II lingo and symbolism is kept to a bare minimum, allowing the story to play itself out according to human nature. And perhaps this is why the movie didn’t connect with viewers initially.

Critics were divided upon its release. Some adored it; others, like Dorothy Thompson, hated it. She famously wrote, “I’ll give the film three days to get out of town.” The Academy did remember the movie during awards season, as Hitchcock earned the second best director nomination of his career. Nominations also came for Steinbeck and cinematography. It’s a shame the movie was overlooked. Had the Academy not reduced the number of best picture nominees from 10 to five that year, it’s a given the movie would have been nominated.

As for the cast, Bankhead is marvelous. Smart, sarcastic, biting, even funny, she breathes life into Connie. Bankhead won the New York Film Critics best actress award that year but was sadly overlooked by the Academy. It’s a real shame that the outspoken Bankhead – who certainly had as many enemies as she had friends – didn’t make more movies, preferring to spend time on stage instead.

The rest of the cast is equally terrific. If Zanuck didn’t have the stars he needed to sell the film, Hitchcock liked the fact that his cast was relatively unknown. He didn’t want audiences to be on the lookout for their favorite stars being hauled on board or have preconceived notions of the types of characters they would play.

The cast was also surprised by the film’s failure. They felt the intelligent story ultimately provided what could rally audiences during this period of war.

It’s hard to give “Lifeboat” its proper due in print. Its look at the gray areas of human nature – as well as an ending that comes with an observation rather than a clichéd situation – makes this a thought-provoking drama that feels fresh rather than dated. Hitchcock pulled off what should have been impossible, what lesser directors would have made predictable. It’s one of the best films he made during the 1940s.

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I am honored to be part of the Hitchcock blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Below are links to the other blogs participating in the blogathon. In case I’ve missed someone, please check out the CMBA web site.


  1. Another favorite Hitchcock film. The characters in this film I found very interesting and the story full of suspense. Also, loved as always.. Hitchcock's creative cameo appearance.

  2. A wonderful review and the trivia and interesting behind the scenes peak makes it even better. This is my favorite Tallulah Bankhead film and a fun little journey by Hitchcock.
    Page at MyLoveOfOldHollywood

  3. I love movies where a variety of characters interact within a confined setting and this one is one of the best examples of it. I'm always impressed with how Hitchcock keeps the visuals so interesting in one setting, as you described so well.

    "Lifeboat" also gave birth of one of my favorite Golden Age anecdotes.

    Twentieth Century Fox staff composer David Raksin heard through the studio grapevine that Hitchcock would not be using a musical score for "Lifeboat", as he was afraid the audience would wonder where the music was coming from.

    The very witty Raksin said to ask Mr. Hitchcock where the camera was coming from, and he would be happy to tell him where the music was coming from.

  4. Gotta love my fellow Alabama girl, Tallulah Bankhead. I agree--it's a shame she didn't make more films, because she really had a great presence on camera. I've read in several sources that she was notoriously difficult to work with, though, so that may have something to do with her limited filmography.

    Excellent post! And you're right--Hitchcock's cameo is quite, quite clever.

  5. Great post! Learned much I didn't know about "Lifeboat." Now I want to watch it again (possibly the best tribute to a blog well done). It's true, the film is thought-provoking, as is your blog.

  6. Thank you for all of the comments! Last year, I watched this film for the first time on ages, and I was floored by how much I liked it. Rewatching it a few weeks ago reinforced how I felt about it.

    Kevin, you always have great anecdotes to share. Glad you're blogging so you can pass them along.

    Yes, trueclassics, she was difficult to work with. But the results, at least here, were worth it. Apparently she had tried something different in one scene and Hitchcock insisted she do it his way. She did, and she wasn't happy, but overall she supposedly liked working with him.

    Lady Eve: A wonderful compliment. Thank you.

    I had to work this morning, so now I'm going to read some of your posts, which I'm sure are excellent!

  7. This is another film that has made my list of "need to watch." Your review is very intriguing, and I think your assessment of why the film didn't go over well is perceptive. During the war audiences were looking for simple, reassuring messages rather than troubling or challenging ones. It makes you wonder how the film would have done had it been released maybe five years later, when complicated films were more common.

  8. I've read a lot of essays on Lifeboat in the past and have always been surprised at the number of people who say they don't like it. I think it's a first-rate film, and suspect that because it's more of a human nature/character piece instead of the usual Hitchcock escapism that's what turns people off. Wonderful review; one that has made me curious to watch this movie again (I have it on DVD but it probably won't come as any surprise that the wrapper is still on it).

  9. Thanks! Priscilla: I wonder about it being made five years later. Some of its observations actually could be made about what was happening with the "communist" scares and McCarthy hearings, in terms of blanket assessments of people based upon one thing. It's an interesting thought.

    Ivan: Thank you. You'll have to pull the wrapper off and watch it -- and let me know what you think!

  10. Like Kevin, I enjoy movies in a confined setting because they magnify the characters' relationships and their ethical/moral decisions. In that sense, LIFEBOAT is sort of a forerunner of films like 12 ANGRY MEN and Hitch's own ROPE (which both embrace their stage play origins). In fact, one could argue that LIFEBOAT was Hitchcock's first play, written in collaboration with Steinbeck. Hitchcock himself commented years later to Truffaut that the use of close-ups in films like LIFEBOAT foreshadowed film techniques that would later become commonplace in television. This was a first-rate review of an always interesting Hitchcock film. I, too, need to watch LIFEBOAT again.

  11. I have always liked Lifeboat very much, and you are right -- Hitchcock's cameo is ingenious. I hd no idea that the briliant John Steinbeck wrote this -- perhaps that's why I like it so much. You do great justice to a wonderful film. Excellent article!

  12. "It’s these kinds of shot selections that makes this boat seem larger that it is, and you forget he was working on a single set."

    Good point Brian. Hitchcock was a master at working in claustrophobic spaces like he did here, and in "DIAL M FOR MURDER," still managing to make it visually stunning. I agree with you on Bankhead, she is marvelous, Your background information is terrific. I became aware of Steinbeck's involvement last year when my wife and I were out in Salinas, Ca. and visited the Steinbeck museum there. Thanks for posting.

  13. Great review! "Lifeboat" is one of the films by Hitch that I saw recently, last year. It's just awesome. I agree with you, the events could have happened in any war, or even the war is not that important, just an excuse. I had never seen Tallulah Bankhead before, and she really impressed me (the pic you added is great). It should definitely be more known and appreciated.

  14. A great post that covers all the essentials, especially about how important, and how powerful, the themes of the film were at that time and still are. "Lifeboat" reminds us how often Hitchcock liked to set himself technical challenges just for the pleasure of mastering them--here filming an entire movie on one set much smaller than even a stage set, so small that not only could the camera barely move, but neither could the actors! It was down to the writing, that superb cast, and of course Hitchcock's inventiveness to keep it all afloat. He took a chance on casting Bankhead, who hadn't made a movie in years and whose previous attempts had been flops attributed to the audience's unsympathetic response to her. He must have recognized that a great stage actress was the perfect choice for working under these conditions and also that the movie needed a strong presence like hers as the dominant personality. It's just a shame she didn't get a well-deserved Oscar nomination. I guess she was too identified with Broadway, and at that time money-losing movies were often penalized by withholding nominations. It's interesting that the directors' branch did nominate Hitchcock, though. Perhaps they were, understandably, less intimidated by commercial failure.

  15. Great review! I wasn't very impressed with this one when I saw it, but your excellent analysis and behind-the-scenes info have made me appreciate it more. It's time I gave Lifeboat another look!


  16. It's been a while since I've seen Lifeboat. I enjoyed the detailed backstory you gave. Over budget? You'd think a story set in a lifeboat would be a pittance to make. :)

    -- Java

  17. Thank you all for the comments. I'm glad people like the post as well as all of the others who participated in the blogathon.

  18. Loved this movie when I saw it, and would love to see it again, especially after reading your terrific write up on it. Interestingly, I just finished reading Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, about Louie Zamperini. Being the Olympics fan you are, I'm sure you have heard his name! I thought of this movie as I was reading that book, as Zamperini survived 45+ days in a lifeboat, all Americans, though. The whole book touches on the issues and ideas that Lifeboat explores...and you're right...are we any further than we were decades ago? In light of current events, one would seriously wonder! Thanks for the great post! Q.!!!

  19. Q: Thank you! Great comparison to Unbroken. It's on my reading list, as others have recommended it to me. How long will it be before Unbroken is made into a movie? Hmmmm.