A motley shipwrecked crew struggles to survive in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’

March 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 2, 2015

In the first shot of Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 war drama, we see the smokestack of a freighter framed by an infinite expanse of ocean. The opening credits — actually, all of the credits — appear over this image as melodramatic minor chords from a score composed by Hugo Friedhofer play ominously.

After about a minute, with all (all!) the credits having been shown, the camera pulls back slightly. We see that the smokestack is not just framed by the waves — it is sticking out of them, all that protrudes above the surface of a ship that has been torpedoed. Within seconds, the groaning smokestack submerges, and the frame turns almost entirely white as the turbulent water fizzes and churns.

Hitchcock’s camera pans across a carefully curated selection of flotsam. There’s a wooden supply crate, which is labeled as having been shipped from New York. A copy of The New Yorker bobs gently, face up, displaying a seemingly timeless image of Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s top-hatted, monocled mascot. A bag floats quietly, along with some kind of diploma or certificate (one that perhaps bears a six-pointed Star of David), as does an evidently lifeless sailor who wears an flotation vest bearing the insignia of Nazi Germany.

Eventually, the camera lands on Constance Porter sitting alone in a lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead’s well-to-do journalist could hardly seem more out of place: Draped in a fur coat, Connie calmly smokes a cigarette and grimaces at some imperceptible flaw in her fingernails or her shoe polish or her stocking.

Porter is alone, but she won’t be for long. John Kovac (John Hodiak, whose brooding intensity and dark good looks strongly suggest Martin Landau) hails her from the water. Porter eagerly snatches up her camera and films the engineer as he swims toward the boat — pausing along the way to pocket some floating dollar bills — and pulls himself aboard.

Soon, the duo comes across a handful of other survivors: Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a ship-building magnate; Stanley “Sparks” Garett (Hume Cronyn), radioman on the sunken ship; Gus Smith (William Bendix), another member of the doomed freighter’s crew; and Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a young nurse who was traveling to London to join the war effort.

The survivors are rounded out by four others: George “Joe” Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s porter, and the only African-American aboard the lifeboat; Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), an Englishwoman who is bringing her newborn baby to meet her husband for the first time; the baby (played convincingly by a bundle of clothing); and Willy (Walter Slezak), a German crewman of the submarine that torpedoed the freighter and strafed its lifeboats before sustaining a mortal blow from the guns of its prey.

The survivors’ prospects are grim. The lifeboat is carrying minimal food and water, its compass is broken, Gus has a badly wounded leg, and the most experienced sailor on board is Willy, the German whose companions don’t consider to be trustworthy. Is he steering them toward sanctuary in Bermuda, or is he navigating the boat to a rendezvous with a Nazi submarine tender and residence in a prison camp?

Lifeboat has a wonderful premise, one that puts the fiber of its characters to the test from the very first moment. Unfortunately, I found this black-and-white movie lacking, for two reasons. One is the technical limitations of the feature: Although the relatively small uncovered lifeboat appears in nearly 99 percent of the movie’s running time, I never got a sense of its layout. Also, the boat’s weathering of rough waves seemed entirely unconvincing. Worse yet, the scene where the starving group attempts to catch a fish looks as though it were filmed by fifth graders, rather than professional movie-makers.

Worse yet, the characters are more types than people. Two romantic liaisons form among the survivors — the working-class Kovac hooks up with the aristocratic Porter and the lovelorn MacKenzie, who yearns for a married doctor, refocuses her attentions on the mild-mannered, entirely vanilla Garett. But I got little sense of just why these attractions formed, other than because the people were trapped in a boat with each other for days at a time and the writers otherwise didn’t have much for the characters to do.

The brassy, sassy Porter comes the closest to seeming like an actual individual, perhaps because the character hews closely to Tallulah Bankhead’s actual personality. The friendly rivalry between Rittenhouse the industrialist and Kovac the socialist is also somewhat amusing; they obsessively wager notional money as they play poker with a handmade deck of playing cards.

The movie’s most interesting plotline involves Willy. Is he misleading the complement of the lifeboat? Was he a simple crewman, or was he actually the captain of the submarine that sank the freighter and cruelly strafed its survivors? But even this isn’t enough to sustain the movie, which was based on a story by the novelist John Steinbeck. (Jo Swerling, who co-wrote the book for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and who adapted The Pride of the Yankees for the screen, actually wrote the script for Lifeboat.)

In the end, Lifeboat is an interesting idea for a movie that just doesn’t work out. Those other than Hitchcock completists would be better off watching Psycho or Rear Window instead.

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