Release Date: January 11, 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Since I started my Classic Movie project in August, I’ve watched movies on streaming services on my iPad and DVD on my television. With the Lifeboat, I took the opportunity to watch a 75th anniversary screening at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. And am I ever glad I did, because it is a well-scripted, well-acted, and compelling drama.
The film begins in media res with foreign correspondent Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) alone in the titular lifeboat amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel and a U-boat in the North Atlantic. She looks particularly well-dressed and highfalutin for the situation, but demonstrates her knowledge and resourcefulness over the course of the film. Other survivors climb on board, including:
- Gus Smith (William Bendix), an American merchant marine ashamed of his German ancestry and suffering from an injured leg. He’s kind of your city kid archetype.
- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse, a competent and compassionate healer. Anderson was strong in this role (and also quite beautiful) and I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem to have any other major movie roles.
- John Kovac (John Hodiak), an engine man crewman, who is the “tough but fair” man who takes the leadership role over the survivors.
- Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), a prosperous industrialist who initially takes the leadership role, but defers to Kovac’s experience. Nevertheless he remains a more compassionate voice in conflict with Kovac.
- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, who proves to the most heroic among the survivors and a quiet leader. Joe is the only Black character in the movie and is written as a stereotypical/token character but Lee’s performance really elevates Joe.
- Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), radioman, who is a friend of Gus and forms a bond with Alice.
- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a young British woman who is traumatized by the death of her infant child.
The last person to climb on board is a survivor of the U-boat wreck, Willi (Walter Slezak). His presence on the lifeboat is the center of much of the conflict in the film as some, particularly Kovac, argue that he should be allowed to drown, while Connie, Ritt, and Stanley argue that would be inhumane and that he should be held as a prisoner. For a movie made in the middle of World War II, Willi is presented as a complex character and sometimes sympathetically, but ultimately untrustworthy. The key lesson for viewers watching this film in 2019 is “Don’t let Nazis take charge!”
In addition to their German prisoner, the crew of the lifeboat have to contend with the loss of their food, water, and supplies, no navigational tools, Gus’ leg turning gangrenous, and a vicious storm. Amid the depiction of conflict and deprivation in a close space, there are still many moments of humanity and even humor. For example, there’s a running gag of Connie inadvertently losing her prized possessions to the sea. The final scenes of the movie are set among a stunning reenactment of a battle at sea and is suitably terrifying.
This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen. Hitchcock’s direction is terrific and Bankhead, Lee, and Slezak in particular put in great performances in a strong cast. It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay is by John Steinbeck, his first fictional work created for film. Take the opportunity to see this movie if it plays at your local arthouse cinema.