“Lifeboat” - Alfred Hitchcock (1944)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) was a wartime film that had a single setting: the confines of a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.  This was the first of four such “one room” dramas by Hitchcock – the others being Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954).  This might suggest to you stories that have been adapted from stage plays and are mostly talk, rather than action oriented.  However, Hitchcock managed to pack plenty of action and suspense into these space-confining films, and this was particularly true of Lifeboat.

Lifeboat’s tale concerns the fate of survivors of a US merchant ship that has just been sunk while headed for London during the World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic [1].  It was based on a story by John Steinbeck, although subsequent alterations by Hitchcock and scriptwriter Jo Swerling led to Steinbeck’s later request to have his name removed from the credits. 

Like many war films of this period, the story encompasses, and celebrates, a cross-section of American society, with the presumed intention of conveying a “we’re all in this thing together” motif.  The idea is presumably that America’s thought-to-be unwieldy heterogeneity is a virtue, not a weakness, and something that shows the strengths of democracy.  Whether this idea comes across effectively in Lifeboat is a matter for you to judge.  There are other themes, too, of course: treachery, survival, romance, even human principles.  These are all things that can come up when a disparate group of people are forced together under trying circumstances.  And that is why the film manages to hold our attention throughout.
Lifeboat’s action-packed narrative proceeds through five unevenly spaced sections, or theatrical acts.

1.  The Survivors Assemble
The film opens with the sinking of the merchant vessel by a German U-boat, which has also been sunk due to counterfire from the stricken ship.  The camera pans across debris-filled waters before fixing on a lifeboat with only a woman wearing a mink coat on board, Connie Porter (played by Tallulah Bankhead).  Soon several other survivors in the water approach the boat and manage to clamber aboard.  One of them, Gus Smith (William Bendix), has a severely injured leg and is immobilized.  Finally, a German survivor, Willi (Walter Slezak) from the sunk U-boat is also taken onboard.  So at this point we have the following people on the lifeboat who all must struggle to survive.  Since their varied characters and attitudes are important for the story, I briefly list these parenthetically at the end of each entry.
  • Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is a famous photojournalist who is vain and self-centered, but also outgoing.  She is constantly seen putting on lipstick and rouge to glamorize herself, even in these dire circumstances (Opportunist).
  • John Kovac (John Hodiak) is an engine-room crewman (Self-confidant Action-taker).
  • Gus Smith (William Bendix) is an injured merchant seaman and an ordinary working-class stiff (Innocent).
  • Charles J. "Ritt" Rittenhouse, Jr. (Henry Hull) is a millionaire industrialist (Principled Manager, Utilitarian).
  • Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn) is a radio operator (Team Player).
  • Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) is an American army nurse (Team Player).
  • Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) is an English mother who is hysterical over the death of her baby (Distraught).
  • Joe Spencer (Canada Lee) is a deferential black ship steward (Modest and Supportive).
  • Willi (Walter Slezak) is the German sailor from the U-boat (Deceitful and Selfish).
With this personality distribution, the romantic opportunities begin to emerge.  The flamboyant and strong-willed John and Connie are naturals for each other.  So, too, are the more sensitive and introverted Stanley and Alice appropriately matched.  And these tentative romances develop over the course of the story.

But immediately there is a clash of personalities over what to do about the German, Willi.  John (supported by Gus) wants to throw the adversary overboard.  The more principled Ritt (supported by Connie, Stanley, and Alice) argues that would be inhuman and a crime.  The self-deprecating Joe abstains on the issue and Mrs. Higley sleeps; but democracy wins in this case, and Willi is allowed to stay. 

That night while the others are sleeping, the still upset Mrs. Higley throws herself overboard and drowns.  Now there are eight people left.

2.  Organizing the Crew
The next morning they have to organize themselves to do various tasks on the boat, such as steering the rudder, preparing a sail, etc.  Ritt presumptuously appoints himself as the  boss, and the others fall in line.  They want to head for Bermuda, but without a working compass they don’t know which direction to take, and Ritt orders that they should follow Willi’s suggested heading direction, since he seems knowledgeable.  At this deference to an enemy, John rebels and forcibly announces that he is now the “captain” of the boat.  Again there is something of a vote, and democracy decrees that John is the new skipper.  So they instead head in a direction guessed at by Stanley.

3.  Gus’s Operation
Now Alice notices that Gus’s leg is gangrenous, and they know they must amputate it.   This is one of the more stirring sections of the film, as they all cooperate and try to comfort Gus.  Willi informs the others that he is a former doctor and proceeds to perform the operation successfully.  Despite the pain and suffering involved, this is the high point of human cooperation in the film.

Afterwards John reluctantly accepts to follow Willi’s proposed heading that the boat should take.

But later that evening Stanley and Alice together are looking at the sky, and Stanley figures out from the position of Venus that they could not be heading for Bermuda.  Willi is ultimately confronted about this and found (by Joe) to have his own compass and has been directing the lifeboat towards a German supply ship all along.  John wants to kill Willi for this, but the others dissuade him from his violent inclinations.

4.  The Storm and Willi
Now a violent storm arises, and the boat’s hand-rigged sail spar is destroyed.  Afterwards, they are forced to row the lifeboat, but because of the lack of food (not having any bait, they cannot catch fish) and fresh water, there is only one person strong enough to do the rowing – Willi.  They all begin to reluctantly accept that Willi’s intention to take them to a German supply ship and ultimately a German concentration camp is preferable to immediate death.

That night while the others are sleeping, Willi, who is still rowing, talks to a deliriously thirsty Gus and, while Gus’s back is turned, he pushes him overboard to his death.  The others hear Gus’s calls, but it is too late.  When confronted, Willi confesses that he is strong because he has secretly kept some food and water for himself.  Upon hearing this, Alice, who has been the most compassionate person in the story up to this point, starts to attack Willi in a rage.  All the rest of them (except Joe) join in on the beating, and then they throw Willi overboard to his death. So Willi is revealed to have been a ruthless and selfish nihilist.  But the others were reduced to animalistic rage, too.  Later Ritt reflectively laments aloud about how Willi could be so evil and says, “what do you do with people like that?”  Apparently he thinks you have to kill them.

5.  Rescue
Now the weakened survivors are near starvation and full of despair.  Connie, who despite her selfishness if still full of life force, refuses to give up.  She gets them to fashion her jeweled bracelet as a lure to catch fish.  They drop the line and do hook a big fish, but they are then interrupted by the appearance of the German supply ship.  They think they are about to taken to the German ship as captives, but then an allied warship appears and sinks the German supply ship. 

While they are waiting to be rescued, another German sailor in the water climbs aboard and points his gun at them.  But Joe wrestles his gun from him, after which Ritt says, “you’ve got to exterminate them.”  And as the film closes, John rhetorically repeats the question,
“what are you going to do with people like that?”

When Lifeboat was first released, it immediately came under critical attack for showing Germans in too sympathetic a light.  Despite its jingoistic posture and suggestion that no Germans could be trusted and should all be exterminated, the mere presentation of mild-mannered Germans in the film seems to have enraged a number of critics.  For this reason, the film only had a limited release and was a box-office failure.  Even so, it did secure a number of Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Story, and Best Cinematography).

Since those early days, the film’s stature has risen considerably and is now considered to be an overlooked classic.  However, later criticism has been directed at the presentation of the black character, Joe Spencer, who is seen as too subservient and obsequious.  Actually, I would say Joe’s character is quite admirable.  He is the one who initially saves Mrs. Higley, grabs Willi’s illicit compass, and disarms the second German seaman.  When they are faced with doom, he expresses his faith in God.  At all times, he is gentlemanly and cooperative.  If his skin color had been different, he would be seen as heroic, but critics were too quick to jump on his deferential demeanor.  In fact he is the most civilized character in the film.

There are undeniable strengths of Lifeboat.  The way Hitchcock has used his camera angles and editing cuts can almost serve as a textbook example of how to present a dynamic cinematic narrative in a confined space.  There is nothing flashy about this in terms of camera movements, but it all works perfectly to maintain the viewer’s attention and interest.  Credit should also be given to Tallulah Bankhead’s energetic performance as Connie Porter.  She, herself, had a uninhibitedly flamboyant and promiscuous personal life that always demonstrated her free spirit.  To some extent one gets the feeling that Hitchcock simply encouraged Ms. Bankhead to simply play herself.  William Bendix’s portrayal of the simple but genuine Gus is also a strong element in the film’s presentation.

Still, to me, the principal weakness of Lifeboat is its endorsement of war against an irredeemable enemy.  The slaughter of Willi is presented as justified, because he is shown to be cold-bloodedly diabolical.  The rhetorical question about what one should do with “people like that” is a copout.  Early on, the film suggested that modern civilization has a “civilized” and humane way of dealing with barbarous behavior. But then as the film proceeds, it withdraws from that posture to end in self-doubt.  The bottom line, however, should be this: revenge and murder are never justified

  1. “Battle of the Atlantic”, Wikipedia, (15 January 2017).      

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