A ship is torpedoed by the Germans and several survivors seek refuge in a lifeboat. When a German is found floating in the water, the survivors pull him aboard. The presence of the German causes much debate, but the survivors must work with him if they are to be saved.
Lifeboat opens to a ship’s smoke stack being submerged by waves. Several items float by the camera in the murky, oily waters – playing cards, a crate of bobbing fruit and, finally, the body of a drowned German. Next we meet a woman sitting confidently in a lifeboat, having climbed aboard with her suitcase and valuable belongings while others perished. As John Kovac climbs out of the water and remarks, ‘Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked,’ she replies, ‘Man, I certainly feel like it,’ giving an instant impression of her assertive and strong-willed character. During the film’s opening moments, Connie and John are joined by other survivors – a single mother Mrs Higley, Gus, Alice, Charles, Stanley and the German, Willi.
Lifeboat was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1945 – Best Cinematography, Best Writing and Best Director. It was also the first of Hitchcock’s films set in a limited location – the entire film takes place onboard the lifeboat – and it’s easy to see why his direction was so praised.
As Connie and Willi speak in German about the gangrene in Gus’ leg, Hitchcock gives us a close up of Gus’ alarmed and unnerved expression. Rather than showing his audience the amputation itself, Hitchcock allows his viewers’ imagination to do the work, suggesting the horrors with a close-up of the knife as it is heats under a flame. Later, while the amputation is underway, Hitchcock occupies us with the reactions of the survivors and focusses on the discarded boot from Gus’ now missing leg. Hitchcock returns us to this boot during another dark moment later in the film.
In Lifeboat, Hitchcock demonstrates his talent for creating atmosphere – be it suspense, tragedy or hope. Mrs Higley wakes up to find her baby gone, ‘where are you Johnny?’ she calls out. As she does so, the camera zooms out to a wide shot, emphasising her panic as she realises Johnny is lost somewhere in the vast ocean. Hitchcock’s approach ensures it is one of the film’s most poignant moments.
Hitchcock’s trademark suspense comes as he reveals to the audience that Willi has a compass – information he fails to share with the rest of the survivors. The audience know from the offing that Willie cannot be trusted, making the survivors’ reliance on him fraught with tension.
Lifeboat was the first fictional screenplay written by John Steinbeck – author of Of Mice And Men and the novel Grapes Of Wrath. Despite it’s dark undercurrent, Steinbeck finds time for some sharp comedic dialogue between the characters – ‘I never could understand this quaint habit of making a billboard of one’s torso,’ comments Connie on John’s tattoos.
Steinbeck’s characters are often astute in their observations of each other making for a film that is sharp and intelligent. John sums up Connie, ‘You’ve been all over the world, met all kinds of people, but you never write about them, you only write about yourself. You think this whole war’s a show put on for you to cover like a Broadway play and if enough people die before the last act, maybe you might give it four stars’.
Today, Lifeboat seems to offer a subtle portrayal of the Nazis. Willi’s most heinous action comes not from sheer malice or hatred but from deeply engrained Nazi teachings. His concealment of the compass and other necessary items makes him untrustworthy and unappealing, but he is no more selfish than many others might be in that situation. While the other survivors are presented with flaws of their own, Lifeboat considers the allies relationship with each other and the Germans. From the moment these different characters are in the Lifeboat together, in a survival situation, they become people rather than armies.
“Lifeboat’s portrayal of the Germans caused a major stir that resulted in the film losing out at the box-office and receiving minimal promotion”
While these suggestions might seem perfectly acceptable to modern audiences, they were received as shocking and provocative in 1944. At the time, Lifeboat’s portrayal of the Germans caused a major stir that resulted in the film losing out at the box-office and receiving minimal promotion. Hitchcock defended his film, arguing that the film’s message – that the enemy cannot be trusted – is clear. But the criticism resulted in Steinbeck’s attempt to disassociate himself from the film. Turner Classic Movies explains:
‘Upon learning of Steinbeck’s discontent with the film, Crowther wrote an article for the New York Times detailing the differences between Steinbeck’s original story and the film, and stating that Hitchcock and Macgowan had “pre-empted” Steinbeck’s “creative authority.” In a telegram to Annie Laurie Williams, reprinted in a modern source, Steinbeck requested that she tell Twentieth Century-Fox to remove his name “from any connection with any showing of this film.”’
The representation of Willi was not the only aspect of Lifeboat that came under criticism. Critics also argued that the African-American character of Joe was stereotypical. One early scene sees Joe ask, ‘Do I get to vote too?’. In 1945, the actor who plays Joe, Canada Lee, belived the character would be ‘a variation from any other Negro that was ever on the screen,’ but claimed it was ‘stunk it up somehow or other, and it turned out to be the same old stereotyped Negro’.
The film’s ending raises some important questions as the survivors encounter yet another German. It’s a clever ending that stays with the viewer after the credits close. Lifeboat is not without a few improbable moments – during a violent storm, the lifeboat appears so full of water, logic insists it must sink, yet in the very next scene, the boat is floating on calm seas, perfectly intact – but it’s an interesting war film that offers a window into public consciousness at the time it was made. Outstanding direction from Hitchcock and solid character development make Lifeboat well worth watching.
Look out for Hitchcock in a newspaper advert for Reduco ‘obesity slayer’.