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A superlative Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Lifeboat shows the director at his most creative, keeping up his interest by making an entire film within the confines of one open, crowded boat bobbing on the high seas. As there isn't a conventional shot in the film (by 1944 standards) the entire picture is a visual experiment played out in front of rear-projection process screens.
There's nothing like Lifeboat in movies made during the war. Although it has a fairly upbeat finale, the film has an unusually negative view of humanity. The group of survivors is literally "all in the same boat" and eager to survive, but John Steinbeck doesn't coddle any notions about adversity bringing out the best in people.
Before you can say 'microcosm,' the Lifeboat collects a cross-section of wartime allies, a sort of civilian platoon: sophisticated reporter (Tallulah Bankhead), business tycoon (Henry Hull), ordinary Joe (William Bendix), concerned nurse (Mary Anderson), English radioman (Hume Cronyn) and black steward (Canada Lee). There's also a holdover from 30s 'social' movies, the disgruntled Communist. That type became extinct in wartime movies ... the last one we remember is Bob Cummings in The Devil and Miss Jones. In the wake of The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck became a vaguely suspicious person, politically speaking, and Canada Lee was later blacklisted as a Hollywood Red.
But Lifeboat uses its few sniping remarks about bosses and Bolsheviks only to reflect a natural animosity between characters; Steinbeck avoids the wartime cliché of having the group express lofty hopes for a better future, even a one-world kind of future. The present crisis is what's important, and although the movie doesn't communicate the abject misery of being stuck soaking wet in an open boat on the high seas, the desperation and stress of the shared predicament is the main focus.
The picture starts out with a Steinbeck shock that had to be deleted from the filmed conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath - the death of a baby. Things like that just weren't considered fit subject matter at the time, and although there are other exceptions (Penny Serenade) they're usually offscreen downers that cloud an entire picture with grief. Lifeboat uses the death to let us all know the picture means business and won't be a three-men-in-a-boat romp.
The most conventional aspect of the movie uses excellent dialogue sequences to delineate the characters. Steinbeck is shrewd enough not to let his group explain themselves in pat speeches, or make heartfelt confessions. We instead get to know them better through bits of action and little hints doled out one at a time. The millionaire doesn't act ostentatious and the British radio man (Hitchcock pal Hume Cronyn) isn't serving tea, and I'm not sure if Canada Lee smiles, even once. The only 'Hollywood' character is the audience surrogate Tallulah Bankhead, first seen luxuriating in a mink coat and peeved over a ripped nylon. As can be expected, she's deprived of her niceties one by one, a process perhaps aimed at complacent women in the audience. Plenty of war propaganda stressed making sacrifices but average civilians saw little change in their lives besides annoying inconveniences. Hitchcock doesn't stress it, but the audience surely reacts with misplaced feelings when one of the survivors goes over the side and commits suicide - the person was wearing Bankhead's costly fur coat.
Later disaster movies would become circuses, encouraging hammy scene-stealing by supporting actors, but the characters in Lifeboat unwind their personal lives just enough to maintain our curiosity. The bulk of the screen time is reserved for the difficult decisions. Electing a captain becomes a case of tough guy intimidation; in terms of wartime politics it's significant that the supposedly democratic system is only a formality. The freezing, starving passengers eventually put their trust in the enemy captain, at which point the previous self-appointed leader becomes discouraged. Only slowly do they realize how much the German is hiding from them ... he seems like such a superhuman, cheerfully rowing all day.
The acting is excellent all around. Exuberant Walter Slezak and Henry Hull are uncommonly subdued, and William Bendix is loveable without tugging at our pant legs. Hitchcock must have carefully chosen his ensemble and then trusted them to follow his general guidelines - there are no mad dashes for Oscars, although Bankhead's star turn would invite them. She made few movies and must have counted herself lucky that this most visible one shows her at her best. This is also probably John Hodiak's finest hour, and a fine opportuntity to see Canada Lee, who only made a handful of pictures before disappearing from the screens in the HUAC years. Nobody remarks on Heather Angel or Mary Anderson, but both are effective as well.
Lifeboat wraps up with some extreme dramatics. The only dated business is Bankhead's caustic laughter as she realizes she's lost everything. Her fur, camera, typewriter, suitcase and a pricey diamond bracelet have slipped away and now she may lose her life, too. For the other social climax Steinbeck chooses a really daring development, the transformation of the survivors into a murderous lynch mob. They have plenty of justification, but their action is still ugly in the extreme. Lifeboat shows that war's first casualty is human decency -- I wouldn't be surprised if Ingmar Bergman extrapolated on this scene for his Shame.
Lifeboat is also an example of Alfred Hitchcock working at his creative best. The whole show plays out in the one unchanging setting, and the fact that he was able to shoot it all on a soundstage doesn't make it any easier ... working with process screens is a time consuming technical challenge. The cameraman must have worked out some kind of system - usually all process angles had to be tested before filming, and Hitchcock keeps his camera popping all around the boat, up and down. We eventually accept the illusion without question. I imagine that filming this show must have been a physical ordeal for the actors.
Having few cutaways means that Hitchcock had to work out every angle, and it's remarkable that nothing seems forced or compromised. We forget about everything but the drama.
Fox's DVD of Lifeboat looks great ... the B&W image is basically clean and rear-projected images are almost as sharp and defined as the foreground. For extras the studio has added an okay making-of docu and a commentary from the well-informed and overly dramatic Professor Drew Casper of USC.
Perhaps Fox has discontinued their 'Studio Classics series' to simply call their quality library product 'special editions,' which is fair enough. As so many releases seem to tie-in with similar big films (a fancy 1997 Titanic will be out shortly) we can understand the awkward cover illustration that packs an old photo of the castaways into a lifeboat graphic ... funny, the boat is a silhouette but its passengers are all front-lit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: commentary by Professor Drew Casper, making-of docu, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 19, 2005
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