Right in the middle of shooting his most ambitious picture to date, director, Alfred Hitchcock was approached by his cinematographer, Glen MacWilliams with nervous unease. It seems Tallulah Bankhead, the eccentric Southerner and ‘name above the title’ in Hitch’s ensemble ‘one-set’ melodrama, Lifeboat (1944) was not wearing any underwear; a casual misgiving for which the ribald Bankhead was well-known. Unmoved by MacWilliams’ inference that, at the current angle of photography the camera would likely ‘expose’ all, Hitchcock rather drolly replied, “I’m sure I don’t know if that’s more a concern for wardrobe or hair-styling.” All kidding aside, Lifeboat is Alfred Hitchcock’s most technically proficient and dismally underrated masterpiece; Hitch’s passion for the project – a loan out and means to escape the tyrannical micromanagement of producer, David O.Selznick (who owned his ironclad contract) virtually submarined by the picture’s ill-timed release (the war, you know) and the critical consensus Hitch’ had somehow made a ‘pro-Nazi’ piece of propaganda by infusing sympathy into the character of Kapitan Willi (supremely realized by newcomer to the movies, Walter Slezak with an undercurrent of insidiously disingenuousness). Indeed, critic Dorothy Thompson gave Lifeboat “ten days to get out of town”, a sentiment echoed by noted New York Times columnist, Bosley Crowther, who suggested Hitchcock’s depiction of the Nazi as something of a caricature of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman was the perfect whiplash against ‘decadent democracies’. It did not help the picture’s reputation John Steinbeck, the eminent writer responsible for its source material, followed suit, denouncing Jo Swerling’s screenplay and publicly requesting producer, Darryl F. Zanuck remove all references to his authorship from 2oth Century-Fox’s marketing campaigns.
Hitchcock, together with Bankhead’s firm denunciation of Lifeboat’s pro-Axis detractors as ‘moronic’, made valiant strides to spin the brewing controversy in the picture’s favor, but to no avail. Lifeboat would quietly vanish from marquees across the country at Zanuck’s behest; buried in the studio’s annals as a very expensive footnote to Hitchcock’s career, and, the proverbial ‘one that got away’; a real shame and money-loser, given the superb performances by all involved. Lifeboat ought to have made a star out of John Hodiak; a Fox contract player, virtually relegated to B-grade fodder and never again to be given as plum a part as John Kovac; the decisive and nubile proletariat who foresees Willi’s treason but is powerless to convince everyone else of the potential threat he poses. Hodiak’s best moments are intermittently timed throughout Lifeboat to make him the unofficial ‘name above the title’: a shirtless, gutsy, and tattooed antagonist, challenging chichi gossip columnist, Constance Porter’s (Bankhead) self-righteous air of importance; knocking her 8mm portable home movie camera overboard and later, almost taken to giving her head a good shake in the throes of passion, also, perhaps, in the hopes of knocking the good sense God gave a lemon into it. William Bendix equally distinguishes himself as Gus Smith; a naïve first mate on the torpedoed ship; suffering a life-threatening wound, the amputation of his leg, and finally, deliberate murder at Willi’s hand. For color, Hitchcock added Mary Anderson as Canadian nurse, Alice MacKenzie, and Heather Angel – Mrs. Higley; the shell-shocked Brit-born mother, still clutching her newly-deceased newborn in her arms. For added testosterone, Hitchcock feathered in one-time Universal contract player, Henry Hull (as careworn millionaire, Charles J. Rittenhouse Jr.), Hume Cronyn (bookish ship’s engineer, Sparks Garrett) and finally, Canada Lee (as cook, Joe Spen).
Hitchcock had been inspired by Steinbeck’s novella – a harrowing depiction of survival on the unrelenting sea after a passenger ocean liner is torpedoed by Nazi U-boats. Steinbeck’s interwoven narrative did present Hitchcock with a singular difficulty: how, exactly, to make 90 minutes of confinement in the relatively limited space of a rickety wooden lifeboat into high stakes cinematic suspense of his usual – or in this case, unusual – high caliber. And Hitch’ for all his determination to will another masterful thriller to add to his ever-increasing reputation as ‘the master of suspense’ in his adopted Hollywood, was perhaps most acutely aware of the fact his native England was similarly embroiled in a fight for her very survival on par with the fictional microcosm being accounted for in Lifeboat. “It was very immediate for my father,” Patricia Hitchcock recalls, “I remember him trying to telephone home upon learning of the declaration of war, the operator abruptly cutting in and saying ‘This country is at war…no outgoing calls!’ before disconnecting the line.” Lifeboat is, in hindsight, a timely parable for England’s endurance against the Nazi threat; Hitchcock cleverly disguising its message under a patina of impeccable craftsmanship, further shielded by the eclectic roster of talent assembled to tell the tale: a potpourri of nationalities, temperaments and social castes thrust together by the cruel hand of fate and even harsher circumstances of the elements to overcome hourly adversities, including threats from within, an unrelenting storm at sea, and, during the movie’s climax, a perilous shelling from Allied and Nazi salvage vessels circling in their midst.
Hitchcock also faced criticism from the NAACP for Canada Lee’s portrait of the stoic black domestic; a performance, in tandem, praised for its ‘compassionate and dependable’ heroism, while condemned as incredulously ‘tokenistic’ and overly simplified. Can’t have it both ways, I suppose; though there is little doubt Lee’s Joe is the least utilized and most underdeveloped characterization within this central cast, despite Joe’s eleventh hour disarming of William Yetter Jr.’s second, and never named German officer pulled from the sea. Plot wise, Lifeboat is brimming with such nail-biting and unanticipated consequences: Willi’s secretive plotting to steer the survivors back to his Nazi supply ship he knows to be nearby while lying he is charting their quickest course to Bermuda, utilizing a compass he claims not to possess and refraining (for some time) from revealing he can speak English (conversing solely in German with Constance – the only survivor worldly enough to know a language other than her native tongue); Willi’s insidious manipulation of the beleaguered and ailing Gus, made a cripple at his hands, then encouraged to drink the sea water; hastening his delusional dehydration and allowing Willi to simply toss him overboard while the others are asleep; Willi’s shockingly unanticipated brutal demise, collectively bludgeoned by the survivors who have succumbed to ‘mob mentality’; his remains tossed overboard, and finally, the group’s decision to not afford the second Nazi in their midst the same consideration, especially after he attempts to hold them hostage with a water-logged pistol.
Unlike Hitchcock’s other ‘drawing room’ thrillers primarily confined to a single set (Rope – 1948, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and, Rear Window – both in 1954), Lifeboat is more a series of character-driven impressions about the war and our survivors’ personal motivations to keep body and soul together outside the usual conventions dictating a plot-driven thriller proceeding from points A to Z with the rest of the alphabet invariably intervening. The real terror in this struggle is not to be hatched in the threat of capture by another Nazi salvage ship looming on the horizon, but by the subtler unearthing of conflict between passengers from disparate walks of life who otherwise would never have encountered one another on their supposed ‘routine’ transatlantic crossing. We really get to know the characters inhabiting this lifeboat; each distinctly drawn with the utmost attention paid to their plausibility and plight as survivors, credibly forced to endure these perils of the sea. Camaraderie turns to skepticism and constantly shifting alliances; then, outright antagonism, ever so cleverly massaged back into focus by Jo Swerling’s brilliant re-imagining of Steinbeck’s original story. And Hitchcock never once allows the audience to play favorites. Not one of the passengers is free of self-doubt or self-pity; harboring less than altruistic principles towards the group, while superficially attempting to ‘remain above it all’. The more brazen of this ensemble grit and then bear their teeth, revealing their contempt before withdrawing in wounded dismay.
Lifeboat opens with a close-up on a billowing smoke stack, the frantic alarm of a ship sinking fast, almost drowning out composer, Hugo W. Friedhofer’s pulsating score as the main titles scroll up the screen. From here, Hitchcock pans down into the debris field; the unusually calm and fog-laden surface of the sea riddled in remnants from the luxury liner only just slipped beneath its surface; a crate of oranges, a newspaper, a crumpled deck chair and then, almost as nonchalantly, a body lying face down. We move into a nearby lifeboat – population: one. Constance Porter, looking as though she just stepped out of a fashion magazine, immaculately tailored in fur and unexpectedly quaffed via Central Casting, adjusting her pride along with her lipstick as she hears the subtle cries of others who have survived this deluge. In short order, Constance pulls engine room crewman, John Kovac to safety; along with leading industrialist and personal friend, J. Rittenhouse, wireless radio operator, Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett, U.S. Army Nurse, Alice MacKenzie, ship’s cook, Jo Spens and Mrs. Higley; a young Brit-born mother, practically catatonic, except in her devotion to the dead infant still nestled in her arms. Last to be hauled in like a salt mackerel is Willi; who at first denies he either can speak or understand English. Cleverly, Constance eventually whittles the truth out of him. He is not a crewman as initially thought, but Herr Kapitan of the Nazi U-boat who gave the order to sink their liner and was, in this assault, mortally wounded herself, forcing him to abandon ship.
While Rittenhouse, already careworn and rich, and Constance, clever and enterprising, take the torpedoing in stride (indeed, Connie is elated to have captured the whole ugly sequence of events on her portable movie camera – pictures to match a story of survival she is already craftily spinning in her brain and hopes to report upon once they are ‘officially’ rescued), Kovac is sickened by the notion Connie plans to profit by the occasion with a juicy ‘first-hand’ account for media consumption). Practically by accident/on purpose, he manages to dislodge Connie’s camera from her grip; the film dropping to the bottom of the sea; later to be accompanied by her typewriter as the crew economize their limited space. Kovac is unnerved by the fact only Constance is able to converse with Willi, who has yet to admit to all he can speak English. Gus, badly wounded in the leg during the attack, begins to ramble on about ‘Rosie’ – the girl he left behind and hopes – against hope – to be reunited with; a real broad, according to Kovac, who flashed her stuff all over town to anyone who would look. Ever-loyal, Gus makes Kovac take back his insinuation Rosie is a loose girl. He also rather sheepishly confesses to having changed his name from Schmidt to Smith to hide his German heritage after war was declared. At first binding Gus’ wound, Alice later makes a further inspection, only to discover a grave infection has set in. The leg will have to come off. At approximately this same juncture in the plot, Mrs. Higley – having come to terms with the death of her infant son (his body earlier cast upon the waters) – quietly drowns herself while the others are asleep under Rittenhouse’s supposed watch.
Willi reveals to the group he can speak English. He further offers his services in the amputation of Gus’ leg. Kovac gets Gus drunk to drown out his pain as the cutting begins. Hitchcock deftly gives us the impression of an amputation taking place; the survivors (all except Sparks, who is steadying the boat in choppy waters), tightly forming a circle around Gus as Willi crudely heats a knife with Kovac’s lighter and the ruthless hacking into soft flesh and dense bone begins. Afterward, Gus is lucid but still very much ailing. He begins to sneak sea water into a canteen to satisfy his thirst. Observantly, Willi allows Gus to poison himself with this salt water, leading to his further dehydration, dementia and eventual physical enfeebling; enough for Willi to casually push him overboard while the others are asleep. Earlier, Gus had noticed Willi hoarding rain water in a hidden flask. With their own supplies destroyed during a hellish storm at sea, Willi might have shared his water with the group. Instead, he has been plotting their demise one by one. After Gus’ death is revealed by Willi as a supposed ‘suicide’ the survivors rush him in an outburst of rage; bludgeoning Willi to near unconsciousness and throwing him overboard; Rittenhouse smashing Willi’s fingertips with Jo’s boot as he attempts to cling to the side of the boat. Nearly beaten into defeatism, the survivors spy a German supply ship on the horizon. Reasoning it is better to be taken prisoners of war than to die alone on the high seas, everyone is pleasantly stunned when the Nazi vessel is blown out of the water by a fast-approaching Allied frigate. As they await legitimate rescue, the account of their past several days’ ordeal is writ large across each of their faces; their lack of emotion suddenly directed at a fresh pair of hands clinging to the side of the boat; another Nazi officer pulled from the most recent wreck at sea. Rittenhouse orders that the Nazi be tossed back into the sea. Constance reasons the young Arian is “only a baby”, but Rittenhouse wisely points to the pistol being drawn on them from the man’s vest, adding “…the baby has a toy.” Unwilling to go through a similar set of circumstances, Jo disarms the Nazi who disbelievingly asks, “Aren’t you going to kill me?” to which Kovac cynically replies, “What do you do with people like that?”
Lifeboat ought to have been another sparkling jewel in Hitchcock’s crown, as it remains a tautly scripted and expertly played piece of suspenseful melodrama from start to finish; meticulously crafted, and even more unanticipatedly peppered in some astute summations and the master’s lighter touches, including, perhaps, Hitch’s most ingenious cameo – shown as the ‘before’ and ‘after’ image on the back of a newspaper ad for the fictional wonder weight loss drug, Reduxo. The ad was so convincing, Hitchcock reportedly received hundreds of letters from the public inquiring how they could get their supply of Reduxo. Hitchcock’s initial idea for a cameo was to be seen floating face up as a corpse amongst the debris. As this proved possibly too morbid for then modern sensibilities and, in fact, lacked good taste, Hitch’ settled for the former ‘appearance’ in print, although he would later be seen precisely as a body floating along the Thames for a trailer to promote Frenzy (1972), his second to last picture. The asking price for Hitchcock’s loan out to Fox was steep; Selznick acquiring several actors, technicians and the rights to three stories Zanuck owned in exchange. Hitchcock’s preceding reputation as a master craftsman was well taken by Zanuck who, ostensibly, planned to make more movies with Hitch’ after Lifeboat’s success. Instead, Zanuck’s cold feet in the face of such overwhelming negativity heaped upon the movie by critics ensured Hitchcock would never again see the inside of a 2oth Century-Fox sound stage.
Possibly, Zanuck held Hitchcock personally responsible for Lifeboat’s failure, or rather, its implicated pro-Axis stance. The idea for the movie had, in fact, been all Hitchcock’s doing; the director hoping to secure the literary prowess of A. J. Cronin, James Hilton or Ernest Hemingway to write the script. Ultimately, Hitch’ settled on Steinbeck as his literary muse; the author’s prolific novel, The Grapes of Wrath, transformed into a startlingly profound movie, personally supervised by Zanuck in 1940. Initially, Steinbeck aspired to write a novel and sell the rights to Fox for a larger sum. Ultimately, Zanuck made the author a generous offer to buy an outline for a story deemed ‘inferior’ by Steinbeck’s publishers; the price - a cool $50,000; the ‘novella’ version eventually appearing in the Nov. 1942 edition of Collier’s Magazine; but credited to Hitchcock and Harry Sylvester after Steinbeck asked his name be stricken from the project over what he perceived to be a fouling misrepresentation of ‘the negro’ in his original story. Eventually, Hitchcock would bring in a small army of other writers to massage the details and appease Steinbeck – enough to get his credit reinstated as ‘original screen story by…’; the other talents including Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, MacKinlay Kantor, Patricia Collinge, Albert Mannheimer and Marian Spitzer. In the waning hours just prior to shooting, Hitch’ also brought in the legendary, Ben Hecht to rework the ending.
Outlining his preferred camera angles from a litany of storyboards and a miniature of the lifeboat, complete with maneuverable figurines, the actual shooting of Lifeboat proved a minor marvel: four full-sized lifeboats employed, some in tanks of water, others, mounted onto a gimbal, rocked against a projected plate shot independent of the action taking place in front of it with water effects added later and the cast perpetually assaulted by spray hoses to simulate rough seas. Apart from Tallulah Bankhead – a favorite and personal friend of Hitchcock – everyone else abandoned the usual coda of Hollywood-ized glamour for the grunge look; the cast made to appear gaunt, half-starved and on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. The perennially damp conditions took their inevitable toll; infections and other illnesses repeatedly delaying the shoot. Lifeboat was shot from August 3rd to November 17th 1943; William Bendix replacing actor Murray Alper in the eleventh hour with barely 48 hours to prepare for his part. The film’s original cinematographer, Arthur Miller also had to bow out. At one point, Tallulah Bankhead suffered a bout of pneumonia and Mary Anderson struggled through an undisclosed illness that almost forced Zanuck to recast her part. But perhaps the most terrifying near casualty involved Hume Cronyn, accidently sucked under by one of the activators stirring the tank waters into a frenzy of waves; the actor cracking two ribs and narrowly avoiding being drowned as nearby lifeguards dove in to free Cronyn from his restraints.
In the end, time has been very kind to Lifeboat’s reputation. Even so, today the picture remains less well-known, even by Hitchcock aficionados, primarily due to its considerable absence from both the big and small screens in the intervening decades since its very limited general release. Indeed, when the first ‘video’ craze for nostalgia hit in the early 1980’s, CBS/Fox Home Video resisted releasing Lifeboat to VHS, not entirely to avoid further controversy, but rather, because inspection of the surviving archival elements revealed Lifeboat had not weathered the passing decades nearly as well as some of Fox’s other vintage product. Worse, when the studio elected to purge its own backlog of original print elements in the late 1970’s (rumored to have unceremoniously dumped everything else into the Pacific), it rather idiotically retained only a poorly contrasted dupe from which further prints could be derived; the dupe already several generations removed from the original camera negative and suffering the ravages of a litany of age-related artifacts, as well as considerable mold and water damage. The net result: no way to go back and improve upon the ragged quality the movie has existed in ever since. I have no doubt modern digital restoration tools might have had a more positive effect on the image derived for Kino Lorber’s recently minted Blu-ray; but no – Fox has not done anything to subtly tweak these severely flawed elements.
So, set aside all hope of seeing an impressive 1080p image. What’s here looks about as competently man-handled as Fox Home Video’s DVD release from 1998. The image is, throughout, softly focused and occasionally hazy, with distinct water and mold damage amplified by Blu-ray’s capacity to highlight texture and defects in the inherent elements. Contrast remains loopy, if slightly less bumped than before. Grain is exaggerated and, at times, very thick to marginally distracting. Not good, folks! Not good at all. Miraculously, the audio elements are infinitely more pleasing than the visuals; generally clean, clear and subtly nuanced in DTS 1.0 mono. Extras have all been ported over from Fox’s DVD SE of Lifeboat and include two independent audio commentaries; one from Drew Casper, the other by Tim Lucas. We also get excerpts of Hitchcock’s interviews with Francois Truffaut and a truncated ‘making of’ with reflections from Pat Hitchcock, Hume Cronyn and others. Honestly, for a Hitchcock movie, Fox ought to have moved heaven and earth to gussy up this print. It will never be perfect, thanks to the previous regime’s obtuse and obscene shortsightedness. But at least it could have been a marked improvement over the aforementioned DVD. Instead, what is here is a regurgitation of the DVD image, merely bumped up to a 1080p signal. Either way, Lifeboat is a must see Hitchcock movie. At 97 minutes it packs in a ton of richly evolved character development with Hitchcock’s inimitable zest for creating some very disturbing dread within our survivors – not only to face the very real prospect of dying at the mercy of Mother Nature, but equally, to be saved and face a world still imperiled by war. Great stuff! Crummy transfer. Buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)