Alfred Hitchcock‘s Lifeboat may begin with a torpedic blast, but it rapidly enters a maelstrom of sanctimony, dime-store impromptu romances, and heavy-handed propagandizing. It’s hard to believe that this rudderless tale about the sinking of an Allied freighter by a German U-boat during World War II was helmed by the same “master of suspense” who produced the gripping small-town drama Shadow of a Doubt only a year earlier. Some have praised Lifeboat as the oceanic equivalent of Rope (1948), a concept movie comprising a one-location mise en scène. That may be so, but the two films aren’t even remotely in the same league. Unlike its delightfully twisted successor, Lifeboat boasts little suspense or psychological interest, and hearing its characters exchange palaver about their workman-like lives creates about as much tension as watching bubbles in a boiling pot of soup. Drifting to its foregone conclusion, it ultimately constitutes little more than an us-versus-them nationalistic pep rally that makes us seasick with its dizzying finger-waving.
The story revolves around a Nazi U-boat captain, Willi (Walter Slezak), who washes up on a lifeboat with eight other survivors (the freighter had sunk the U-boat just before going down). Upon Willi’s appearance, the group soon divides itself into pro and anti rival factions. Rich society lady and reporter Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) heads up the supporters of the beefy German. She’s joined by do-gooder seaman Stan Garrett (Hume Cronyn), shipyard entrepreneur Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice Mackensie (Mary Anderson), and token black guy George Spencer (Canada Lee). Spearheading the “let’s throw him overboard” movement is rough-and-tumble sailor boy John Kovac (John Hodiak), whose apelike combativeness almost makes the Nazis look like pacifists.
Which raises the question of what Hitchcock was trying to tell us here. One could view the juxtaposition of Kovac’s and Willi’s characters as evidence of pro-Nazi sympathies. Willi may be the embodiment of pure evil, but he’s also presented by Hitchcock as a fine specimen of the “master race.” He is fluent not only in German but also in English and French; has a rich singing voice; is a master surgeon who expertly amputates the gangrenous leg of another survivor, Gus Smith (William Bendix); and, most importantly, consistently is able to dupe his naive Allied companions into believing his intentions are innocuous while he gives them false compass directions and steals what little water they have. Meanwhile, Kovac is presented as a brutish bigot whose assumptions are based on crude observance of superficial differences. “Lies are what he was brought up on” is his main line of argument in defense of jettisoning the German.
Kovac is right, of course, which suggests that Hitchcock’s primary intention was to accentuate the evil-genius qualities of Willi to emphasize how important it was for the American passengers to forget their bickering and background differences and band together as a group against a common enemy. At core, it’s a simplistic notion that paints the world in black-and-white terms. Germans, evil. Americans, good. Patriotic, yes. Interesting, no.
Hitchcock tries to dress up the hopelessly pedestrian survivalist concept with mawkish dialogue between similarly stereotyped pairs of male and female characters. The jaded rich bitch Porter and the standoffish Kovac “hook up” as do the sugary-sweet combo of Stan Garrett and Mary Anderson. Meanwhile, a one-legged Gus sits on the sidelines and whines incessantly about whether the apple of his eye Rosie will still love him when she finds out he can’t dance any more. Such matchmaking often works for the melodramatic director, but here it’s contrived, asking us to believe that two people who’ve only been acquainted for a few hours could be meant for each other. It made me think of James Cameron’s Titanic, and that’s not a film I want to be reminded of.
The one moment of real poignancy in Lifeboat involves the British survivor Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), whose baby drowns near the beginning of the film. Therein lies a real attachment, the proverbial mother-child bond, one that could have been developed further to stress the sense of loss felt by the survivors. Alas, it doesn’t fit neatly into the chauvinistic agenda or the make-you-feel-good-inside romantic fluff with which Hitch panders to his audience.
Wartime propagandizing was nothing new for Hitchcock, but he employed it much more skillfully a few years earlier. In Foreign Correspondent, he ultimately uses his character leads as fodder for a radio broadcast meant to rouse the American sleeping giant to action in the European military theater. A cheap ploy, yes, but an ironic and intelligent one in the context of a deftly structured intrigue about love and war. Lifeboat floats in shallow shoals but never dives for deeper meaning. It’s not a terrible film, just a mediocre one, particularly by Hitchcock standards. John Steinbeck, the iconic American author who penned the screenplay, ended up washing his hands of it. Technical accomplishments aside, I’d think the critical establishment would too.
Joe’s Grade: C+