When it’s on: Wednesday, 25 April 2012 (12.55 pm)
This little wartime thriller, made by Alfred Hitchcock while he undertook his Masters in Suspense, ranks amongst his lesser known works. The reasons for this go back to its initial release. Twentieth Century Fox came under considerable pressure because Lifeboat had the temerity to make its German character a living, breathing human being and not a monster. This led to a limited number of screenings and obscurity, which is a shame as it’s a cracking featuring a raft (sorry) of solid, rounded characters.
Lifeboat came into being from Hitchcock’s desire to tell war stories during the conflict. Tales of peril at sea sat well with him and no less a figure than John Steinbeck was hired to write a story. Already switched on to the idea of making films from a single set – which, via the end of the decade’s Rope, would find its ultimate expression in Rear Window – Hitchcock storyboarded the film before a single camera rolled, trying to ensure no two shots would look the same. Lifeboat was filmed on a studio set, the titular vessel floating in a purpose-built tank, whilst various boat segments where also constructed for more intimate angled shots.
The entire film – apart from a tiny, post-credits sequence – is told from the point of view of the passengers, floating about somewhere in the Atlantic in their little boat. They’re the survivors of a passenger liner that’s been torpedoed in a U-Boat attack, though the submarine has also been destroyed in the exchange of fire. A disparate group they are, from famous society journalist, Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) to wounded American sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix), gobby Communist John Kovac (John Hodiak) and black seaman, George Spencer (played by former welterweight contender, Canada Lee). At first, the passengers show a cheerful determination to get along while they await rescue, despite the early departure of distressed mother, Mrs Higgins (Heather Angel) who drowns herself after being brought onto the lifeboat with her already dead baby.
There’s a significant elephant in the room in the avuncular shape of Willi (Viennese actor, Walter Slezak), a survivor from the U-boat who denies he’s a Nazi officer and can apparently speak only German. The optimism of the group stops him from being tossed overboard, as does his early diagnosis of Gus’s wound as being gangrenous and requiring an amputation. Willi even performs the surgery himself, a precursor to his steady taking over of control as it becomes clear he’s the most able seafarer amongst them. But is he all that he seems? Why, as the food and water runs out or falls victim to stormy seas, is he fresher than anyone else, capable of rowing and showing greater purpose?
The questions surrounding Willi are answered over the course of the film, as the tension mounts and the passengers suffer from dehydration and desperate frustration. The sense of claustrophobia is palpable, possibly a real-life consequence of the small set and privations endured by the cast. Constantly doused with water, which led to a couple of cases of pneumonia, the shoot was hampered with injuries and illness. There was also much comedy and annoyance in equal measure involving Tallulah Bankhead, a noted bonne vivante who brought a titanic reputation for her high rolling lifestyle to the set and caused a stir amongst cast and crew for her tendency to ‘go commando.’
Lifeboat may be the best Hitchcock film to have settled into relative obscurity, particularly compared with others that are rightly regarded as second rate. It’s just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series, with a fresh high-definition remaster. Make no mistake, Lifeboat deserves the royal treatment. It might even be time to look into replacing my current copy (a Fox Region 1 release from 2005), which is beginning to show its age.