Directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1944 from a story by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is set a year prior. The premise is simple enough: a German U-Boat torpedoes a merchant ship in the Atlantic Ocean, those that survive the assault climb into a lifeboat and do what they can to survive and, hopefully, eventually get rescued.
This rag-tag group is made up of a journalist named Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a dockworker named John Kovac (John Hodiak), a nurse named Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a merchant marine named Gus Smith (William Bendix), a radio operator named Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), a businessman named Charles J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a ship steward named Joe Spencer (Canada Lee) and a young woman named Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Each of these survivors has their own issues to deal with, and obviously their own concerns. Higley, for example, lost her young son when the ship went down.
Things get even more complicated when they pull another man out of the water only to discover that his name is Willi (Walter Slezak) and that he's actually a crewmember of the U-Boat that sent their ship down. When they let him into the boat, conflict soon erupts amongst the group as to what they should do with him. This, coupled with dwindling food and water supplies and some increasingly nasty weather quickly take their toll on everyone in the boat, save for Willi…
It's fascinating to watch the characters all play off of one another in this picture. There's conflict inherent in their different classes. Some are rich, others rather poor, they come from different walks of life and represent different facets of society then and now. In this boat, however, the playing field is levelled. Money and social standing don't matter in the middle of the ocean. The only one who has an upper hand over anyone else is the German. He's smarter, craftier and sneakier than the rest and while they squabble amongst themselves as to what to do about him in the boat, he's clearly paying attention and figuring out how to work this to his advantage. There's no doubt that Willi is ‘the enemy' in the picture, that's made very clear by his actions let alone his allegiance to Nazi Germany, but those that represent the Allies in the film, the ones from the downed merchant ship, do as much harm to each other as Willi is able to do.
Because of this, Lifeboat is a film rich with fascinating characters who are, thankfully, portrayed by an incredibly talented cast. Tallulah Bankhead stands out amongst them all, however. Everyone here is great, there's not a weak link in the entire chain, but Bankhead's character is really knocked down a few pegs as the story plays out and she makes us feel it. As to Slezak's work as the heavy? He's perfect in the part, completely devious and always thinking. His performance is appropriately coy and the movie is all the better for it.
Given that the vast majority of the film takes place in the titular lifeboat, the visuals are strikingly dramatic and frequently impressive. The limited location means that much of the focus is on the characters. Lots of impressive close ups help to add to the growing tension in the picture and help add to the mood. When the storm comes in, the presence of the crashing waves and rain keep us on the edge of our seat, the boat's inhabitants really take a beating here. Lots of details to look out for as well, the presence of something as minor (but wholly valuable) as a compass in one telling shot is a big deal, no matter how simple the camera setup might have been. In the hands of a lesser director this might have been a dull looking picture, but not so here under Hitchcock's watch. The film is also perfectly paced, giving us just enough character development and plot twists to keep things moving along nicely. Really, there's not much to complain about here at all. This is smart, well made entertainment and a film that would seem to have lost none of its power in the decades since it was made.
Lifeboat arrives on Blu-ray from Kino on a 50GB disc (though the transfer only takes up 20Gbs of space) framed properly in 1.33.1 in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation. Generally speaking, this transfer is very good. There's excellent detail evident throughout, solid blacks, clean whites and good greyscale. Contrast looks good, there's nice texture and depth to the image and there's no evidence of any noise reduction or edge enhancement. This is a fairly clean, film-like transfer that offers a substantial upgrade over the previous DVD that was released years back by Fox. There is some minor print damage here and there, mostly just small specks and what not, but otherwise the image quality here is storng.
The sole audio option on this disc is an English language 2.0 DTS-HD Mono track that sounds just fine. Optional subtitles are provided in English. Dialogue is clean, clear and properly balanced while the score and sound effects used in the film come through with good clarity.
The first of two audio commentary tracks on this disc comes courtesy of film historian Tim Lucas. As it the norm with Lucas' tracks, this is a very informative piece loaded with a lot of detail and a good bit of critical analysis as well. He makes some interesting observations about subtleties in the performances, the dialogue and the production values but also provides us with lots of interesting trivia about the film's history, the story that the picture is based on and more. The second commentary is delivered by film studies professor Drew Casper that is carried over from the aforementioned Fox DVD release. Despite semi-frequent gaps of silence there's some good information here about Steinbeck's source material, how Hitchcock came to direct the picture, stories about the cast and crew and more.
Kino have also provided two featurettes, the first of these is a Hitchcock / Truffaut Interview that runs just under twelve minutes. This is an audio recording that plays out over a great selection of stills and poster art. The conversation between the two filmmakers is great, with Hitchcock talking up the film's initial reception and sharing some interesting stories about working with the different cast members that populate this picture. The second featurette is the twenty minute The Making Of Lifeboat. For those who haven't seen it there's input here from Pat Hitchcock, Drew Casper and Steinbeck expert Robert Demott. It's an interesting piece with plenty of great stories told.
Outside of that we get trailers for the feature, bonus trailers for Compulsion, 23 Paces To Baker Street and Five Miles To Midnight, menus and chapter selection. The disc comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase but it does feature some nice reversible cover art allowing you to display your choice of two vintage poster art inspired cover pieces.
Lifeboat may not be the first film you think of when you hear the name ‘Hitchcock' but it's a very good film. The picture is ripe with dramatic tension and it's remarkably well directed. The performances and the visuals are excellent across the board and Kino's Blu-ray presents the picture in great shape with some nice extra features. Highly Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.