Lifeboat presented director Alfred Hitchcock with two very specific technical challenges. One was how to create a 90-minute film when your action was confined to a handful of actors aboard one small boat. The other was how to stage his traditional walk-on appearance when it would be very incongruous to have a portly Englishman in a black suit simply stroll by. The second problem was solved very simply but ingeniously. Hitchcock was featured in an advertisement for a weight-loss pill in a newspaper read by one of the characters. The first problem was a matter of planning the film with storyboards, shot by shot, which the director did better than anyone.
Lifeboat is a based on a novella written by John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) specifically for Hitchcock. The author had been courted by Hollywood for years but had been wary of “selling out.” When the war came and Steinbeck desire to enlist was thwarted by suspicion of his supposedly radical activities before the war, he was eager for a chance to prove his patriotism and jumped at offer to work with Hitchcock.
The film opens with the sinking of an allied freighter by a U-Boat in the Atlantic. The only person in the lifeboat at first is society writer Constance “Connie” Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), fretting over a run in her stocking. Quickly, other survivors swim up and climb aboard. First is John Kovac (John Hodiak), a coarse sailor from the engine room. Following closely are industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), wounded sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix), British sailor “Sparks” Garret (Hume Cronyn) and ship’s steward Joe Spencer (Canada Lee). Joe brings shell-shocked civilian Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) and her baby. The last to come aboard is Willy (Walter Slezak), a sailor from the U-Boat, with was sunk by gunfire from the stricken freighter.
At first the boat is divided about what to do with Willy. Kovac is all for throwing him overboard in retaliation for the U-Boat shelling the other lifeboats. Rittenhouse refuses to do the “uncivilized” thing. Fortunately, the worldly Connie speaks German and Willy is able to, if not win everyone’s trust, at least stave off drowning. Slowly, as the survivors weather crisis like not having a compass to find the direction to Bermuda and the need to amputate Gus’ gangrenous leg, they begin to depend more and more on Willy’s experience as a seaman. However, it also becomes clear that the German is not playing straight with the other survivors. Is he really taking them to Bermuda or to rendezvous with another German ship?
The part of Willy is cast and written beautifully. Walter Slezak has a boyish, appealing face and, at first, Willy is jovial and competent. The other key character is Tallulah Bankhead’s Connie. Going totally against type, Hitchcock made the spoiled society dame the most resilient and ultimately the most competent survivor. She’s as salty as the water around the boat.
Make no mistake, Lifeboat is a wartime propaganda film, as evidenced by Willy’s final act and his reaction to it, as well as the reaction of the young German survivor from the end of the film. Still, it’s one of Hitchcock’s more significant technical achievements. It is more artistically successful than Rope because the director was not confined the gimmick of the “endless” take.
Unfortunately, it was less than a box office hit due to a negative reaction to the “positive” portrayal of Willy. Having seen the film again, I can only say that this is rather baffling. Equally perplexing is Steinbeck’s later charge that the portrayal of Joe was somehow “racist.” The black steward’s character may fall short by modern standards, but for 1944, I’d have to say it wasn’t bad. His line, “Do I get a vote, too?” could even be seen as a gentle but pointed dig at Jim Crow.