In the midst of World War 2, a freighter is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, during which both ships sink. One lifeboat remains afloat, and is gradually filled with survivors, beginning with famous journalist Constance Porter (Talulah Bankhead), and eventually includeinga headstrong engine-worker named Kovac (John Hodiak), radio operator Stan (Hume Cronyn), nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), millionaire Ritt (Henry Hull), wounded seaman Gus (William Bendix), black steward Joe (Canada Lee) and mourning mother Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), whose baby has died in the incident. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, the ninth person aboard their craft is Willi (Walter Slezak), the sole survivor of the U-Boat that sank their ship.
Of all the Hitchcock films I hadn’t seen, this was the one I was most looking forward to. It’s one of those instances whereby the great director sets a challenge for himself that so often leads to some of his best work. Take Rope, for example, which was shot as though it was one continuous take, or Rear Window, shot almost entirely from within one small apartment. Lifeboat also has one location, but it’s much more limiting in terms of the space available and lack of places to hide, as all the action here takes places on the eponymous small boat. I approve greatly of restricted narratives, where the film-makers set up obstacles for themselves to work around, challenges that may lead to them improving themselves and their craft. 12 Angry Men is probably the highest-ranked film in my book for doing this kind of thing well, but Lifeboat deserves to be considered as well.
As with Sidney Lumet’s jury drama, Lifeboat has people from all walks of life contained in the single setting, and naturally initial tensions are mounted high, especially after the arrival of Willi. Some people want to cast him overboard or kill him where he stands, others consider him a prisoner of war, and believe he should be treated with the rights which that position entitles him, namely survival. Willi is the main catalyst for most of the drama that unfolds, but it is Bankhead’s Constance Porter who is our lead. She has the greatest character arc across the film, gradually losing her precious belongings, and her sense of selfish pride along with them.
The acting across the board was great, particularly from Bankhead, Slezak and William Bendix, the injured seaman who must spend all of his screen time in the same position due to his leg wound, thereby making his involvement in scenes even more restricted. He gets the most acting to actually do, being a fairly loud character involved with a great deal of the conversations, and also being the focal point for a few key scenes too. Some other characters didn’t have a lot to do in comparison – the film took an interesting turn early on when Joe, the black steward, was allowed to vote amongst the boat’s democracy like everyone else, despite his then-second class ranking, but opted out for reasons of his own. Alas, the topic of race was never brought up again (prior to that moment he’d also been referred to as “Charcoal,” which I can’t help but bring up, even if it was just a sign of the times) and as such Joe has barely anything else to do for the rest of the film.
Many of the twists and turns within the plot were either unexpected or sign-posted just enough to ensure they remained effective without being too shocking, and the ending was satisfying, in a way that so many films of this type can sometimes not be (cough All is Lost cough). Plus, it’s got my favourite Hitchcock cameo to date, appearing as both the before and after images in an advert for weight loss in a newspaper, as prior to making Lifeboat Hitch had actually lost a great deal of weight. This film is well worth tracking down, and doesn’t get discussed nearly as much as it should.
Choose Film 8/10