During World War II, a freighter is sunk by a German U-Boat. A handful of survivors climb into a shabby lifeboat. Tensions rise on the overcrowded boat after a crew member from the German submarine is allowed to come aboard the small vessel.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Dying together’s even more personal than living together.”
Alfred Hitchcock has the kind of problem most filmmakers wish to have: He made so many great movies that the ones that don’t reach masterpiece status tend to be pushed to the wayside. Had anyone but Hitchcock directed Lifeboat, the movie would now be regarded as a masterwork — it’s definitely a fascinating war movie.
Lifeboat is an interesting movie, partly because it’s so unusual. The film was shot in sequence on a single location. Minus the opening and closing scenes, there is no music. The characters are symbols — Hitchcock deliberately presents the boat passengers as a microcosm of WWII-era America. Unfortunately, and despite its provocative ideas and technical innovations, the film rubbed many people the wrong way.
The majority of film critics accused Lifeboat of being politically tone-deaf and unpatriotic. The controversy scared the bejesus out of 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, the man who green-lighted the project. Eager to distance himself from the squabble, Zanuck decided not to promote the movie. These factors contributed to Lifeboat being Hitchcock’s first American movie to perform poorly at the box office.
What was all the fuss about? The American intelligentsia vehemently objected to the manner in which the Nazi character is depicted in the movie. The Nazi soldier, who may or may not be the captain of the U-Boat that sunk the cargo ship, was written as a three-dimensional person. He is treacherous and cruel. He is also smart and brave. All in all, the German soldier possesses both good and bad qualities.
Apparently, many film critics didn’t like how Lifeboat suggests that Nazis were humans too (?). It’s also possible that many viewers were in no mood to be lectured. Lifeboat warns WWII audiences about the consequences of not working together against a common enemy. If Hitchcock is guilty of something, it was of failing to understand that Americans tend to be hyper sensitive to any criticism during times of national crisis (pointing out someone else’s mistake is an implicit form of criticism).
While I don’t think Hitchcock expected to be called a traitor, it’s obvious that he was being deliberately provocative. Writer Jo Swerling (The Pride of the Yankees) later admitted that Hitchcock was responsible for most of what you see on the screen (author John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, work wasn’t used). Hitchcock’s scorching attack on the status quo can be detected in scene after scene, and in every character.
For example, the director uses the only African-American in the cast, Canada Lee (Body and Soul), to take jabs at the establishment. In one of my favorite scenes, someone wants to hear Lee’s opinion about an important issue, and he replies with a sarcastic remark, “Do I get to vote too?” Hitchcock pushes for inclusivity while simultaneously acknowledging racial inequality. In my opinion, these are some reasons Lifeboat should be seen not only as a great Hitch movie, but also as a fascinating WWII movie.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
No ifs or buts about it, Lifeboat shows Hitchcock at his most subversive. The film is a blistering attack on both American complacency and the country’s social divisions. While many ’40s war movies have dated badly, Lifeboat feels modern and urgent. It doesn’t hurt that the actors are great — legendary stage actress Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die Darling!) is superb as an aloof journalist. It’s one of The Master of Suspense’s most underrated movies. Highly recommended! B&W, 97 minutes, Not Rated.