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Lifeboat (1944)

October 6th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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A freighter sinks at sea. A lifeboat emerges through the debris carrying Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead). She wears a mink coat and appears more troubled by the run in her stocking than the shipwreck. An oil soaked sailor named Kovac (John Hodiak) swims over. He doesn’t have to tell her they were hit by a torpedo, then fired on with artillery. “Those Nazi buzzards in tin fish ain’t enough. They gotta shell us too!”

Sparks (Hume Cronyn), a brainy merchant marine, joins them next. He informs Kovac the radio shack was hit before an SOS was sent. The other survivors are a young nurse named Alice (Mary Anderson) on her way to London, a shipping magnate (Henry Hull), a wounded sailor named Schmidt (William Bendix) who’s changed his name to “Smith”, a black steward (Canada Lee) and a shellshocked Englishwoman (Heather Angel) whose baby has drowned.

The lifeboat also picks up a survivor from the sunken U-boat, Willie (Walter Slezak), who Constance speaks German to. Willie claims to only be a crewman, but Constance tricks him into revealing he was in fact captain. Kovac and Smith want to throw the Jerry overboard, but the others vote to extend him shelter. The shipping magnate assumes the role of skipper. Kovac doesn’t like taking orders and nominates himself for the position.

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The survivors hope to reach Bermuda, but without a working compass, are at a loss to know which way to head. Willie makes a suggestion, but Kovac believes the German intends to lead them to an enemy supply ship. With no other alternatives, the survivors trust the enemy. A suicide, an amputation, a storm and a shortage of food and water threaten to undermine the unity of the lifeboat. Willie is then revealed to have his own agenda.

Production history 
The deal that brought director Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood at the service of David O. Selznick included four years of option clauses, giving the producer a stake in any film Hitchcock was hired to direct. Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck was eager to work with Hitchcock, but the director couldn’t find a project he was interested in making there. After finishing Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock was threatened with a twelve week suspension of pay by Selznick unless he agreed to a one-picture deal with Fox.

Hitchcock had an idea to pitch the studio, one he’d been mulling over for a year. It revolved around the survivors of a ship torpedoed by Germany and would take place in the microcosm of their lifeboat at sea. To write the script, Hitchcock wanted Ernest Hemingway. The director dispatched a cable to the author’s winter home in Cuba. Hemingway was otherwise committed and responded to Hitchcock that they would have to work together some other time.

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John Steinbeck – who had a working knowledge of the sea – was approached next. Hitchcock provided the author a scenario, which Steinbeck responded to favorably. Within a week, he produced a 100-page novelette. But Steinbeck had elected to occupy the lifeboat with only one person and focus his story on that character’s thoughts. This was not what Hitchcock wanted at all. He turned to MacKinlay Kantor, an American novelist and screenwriter, but Kantor was let go after two weeks.

Next up was Jo Swerling, a former newspaperman who’d written screenplays for John Ford and Frank Capra. Through the late spring and early summer months of 1943, Swerling, Hitchcock, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and producer Kenneth MacGowan wrote a final draft. For the lead, Hitchcock’s choice had always been Tallulah Bankhead, legend of the London stage who at the age of 40, had a checkered career in Hollywood.

Shooting was set for August, but the Office of War Information had read the script and objected to the morals of the various American characters. Zanuck didn’t have an issue with the script’s patriotism, he was worried about the budget. The film ended up costing $2 million, but when the studio head saw a rough cut in November, he was enthusiastic. Lifeboat earned Hitchcock his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director.

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If I were a high school history instructor and needed a movie to spurn discussion on the tensions running through America in 1944 – as well as the race and class inequities – Lifeboat would be a pretty good selection. Unfortunately, while there’s forty five minutes here that are all right, there’s at least another forty five minutes dragged down by melodrama, flimsy characters and extremely outdated dialogue.

The concept ranks as one of Hitchcock’s most exciting, examining the primal forces that threaten to fracture the unity of a group dependent on each other for survival. The technical challenges of setting an entire movie around a lifeboat and making it visually appealing are mastered. As for the cast, Hume Cronyn and Mary Anderson have nice chemistry, while Walter Slezak is terrific as the nefarious German willing to sacrifice lives to achieve his objective.

Beyond the anti-German jingoism and racial asides the movie is rife with – Bankhead refers to the steward affectionately as “Charcoal” – the real embarrassment of Lifeboat is that barely any of the behavior exhibited by the characters is believable. I never accepted the way the survivors regard their predicament at all. The execution of the picture lacks intensity, and is not the master of suspense in top form.

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Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock says, “With its confined quarters and drama created without flashback, Lifeboat reads more like a stage play than a motion picture. In the capable hands of Hitchcock though, it is hardly a tale of just words.”

“Viewers will note that Willi, with moments of likeability even as he turns out to be duplicitous, makes a more chilling villain than he would if his intentions were clear from the start,” writes James A. Stewart at DVD Verdict.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “Without ever leaving the boat, Hitchcock plays psychological tensions against one another, continually ramping up the stakes as food and water run out.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Drunk scene · Golden Age of Hollywood · Paranoia

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 7, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    While certainly not one of the director’s best (and in spite of the many flaws which you point out here in your piece, Joe), I still rather like Lifeboat. At the very least it features what I think may be Hitch’s most clever cameo appearance. :)

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 8, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Damian: I remembered Lifeboat being a lot better when I saw it on VHS in my early 20s. Maybe I’m just getting more jaded in my mid 30s. Hitchcock actually planned on being a corpse floating in the sea, but the dummy proved impractical, leading to the alternative which as you point out, was clever. It totally brings the movie to a standstill, but, it’s funny.

  • 3 Herb Behrens // Oct 13, 2007 at 11:42 am

    On JANUARY 10, 1944 Steinbeck sent a wire to 20th Century-Fox: “I have just seen the film lifeboat…and billed as written by me. …while it is certainly true I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs …” & on 2/19/1944 he instructed his agent, Annie Williams to write ” …because the picture seems to be dangerous to the American war effort, I request my name be removed from any connection with any showing of this film”

  • 4 Nuno Cunha // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:44 am

    I always think that the mother of the baby was killed by the german nazi instead of killing herself. I think Hitchcock always explains very well the real human behavior. When i first saw this movie i thought i wouldn´t want to die missing it.

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