Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock's seventh American film, marked a considerable departure from the kind of suspense thriller on which his reputation is based. This nine-character story is remarkable in that it takes place entirely in only one setting, a lifeboat—about as small and claustrophobic a space as ever challenged a film director facing a full-length production. The physical and dramatic limitations of the script present obvious difficulties but it is as if Hitchcock deliberately created this restrictive project to prove that he could overcome its inherent problems.
Hitchcock has always taken chances with his films, and Lifeboat is one of his most challenging undertakings. For the most part, it is a successful one. The story developed from an idea Hitchcock himself conceived and for which he enlisted the literary help of John Steinbeck to develop dramatically. Stein-beck came up with the overall plot and character development in a twenty-page screen treatment, after which Hitchcock hired MacKinlay Kantor (later author of The Best Years of Our Lives) to flesh out a final screenplay. Hitchcock did not like Kantor's-treatment, however, and turned the project over to Hollywood veteran Jo Swerling (A Man's Castle, 1933; The Westerner, 1940; Blood and Sand, 1942), who collaborated with both Hitchcock and Steinbeck on the final draft.
The result is a tense drama of characterizations and allegory of the world at war in 1943. Many contemporary critics defined the film by its obvious moral message: "Judge not." However, years later, Hitchcock, who has always been loathe to define the meanings of his films, explained to French director/critic Francois Truffaut, what indeed, to him, was Lifeboat's theme:
"We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their difference aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination."
Lifeboat's nine characters represent a microcosm of the world during World War II: Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a parasitic, luxury-laden journalist; John Kovac (John Hodiak), a crewman from a Marxist freighter; Willy (Walter Slezak), a surgeon and Nazi submarine captain; Gus (William Bendix), the seaman; Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), a naval radio officer; Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), an army nurse; Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a business tycoon and quintessential capitalist; Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), an Englishwoman who is carrying her dead baby; and George "Joe" Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship's steward.
The opening credits move across the screen in front of a sinking ship—a freighter which has been torpedoed by a German submarine—and as the camera moves across floating debris, we see eight survivors climb aboard a lifeboat. The ninth survivor to come aboard is Willy, the only survivor of the U-boat which has sunk the freighter. As his hand comes over the side of the lifeboat, the other passengers help him aboard, to which he responds, "Danke schOn." As the Allied passengers realize this man is their enemy, the dramatic tension of the picture is set into force. Willy, the Nazi, is the catalyst for all of the film's action.
It is soon apparent that Willy is the only one aboard who has any knowledge of seamanship; when the lifeboat almost capsizes, he is the only one to act. After several days, the survivors reluctantly concede to his taking charge. Kovac, the Communist from South Chicago, is most adamantly against Willy, but group survival overrules his objections. As the film progresses, we see that Kovac's political prejudices are as singleminded as those of Willy. Furthermore, tycoon Rittenhouse is a determined Fascist.
The interaction of these diverse characters creates what dramatic intensity there is in Lifeboat, and Hitchcock's orchestration of their actions and reactions prevents them froth being merely stock stereotypes. Joe Spencer is presented as a Christian man rather than the usual cliched black, and Willy, while cunning and singleminded, is not without charm and courage.
The day-by-day ordeal of surviving on the lifeboat with little food and water and fighting the elements causes the survivors to strike out against one another; yet the experience demands that they pull together to keep alive. Willy is the only passenger who remains calm throughout. Unbeknownst to his fellow passengers he has extra water and a compass. They discover that instead of heading for Bermuda as they had thought, Willy is steering them toward the safety of a German supply ship. Proving Hitchcock's thesis that they must, but will not, forget their differences and pull together, the eight passengers accept their fate in the hands of the Nazi, as if to admit that survival in a concentration camp would be better than death at sea.
Despite the single setting, the somewhat stereotypical characters, and the absence of a musical score (Hitchcock used only the sounds of the sea in the film), the realities with which the passengers are forced to deal prevent cinematic stasis. The passengers comfort Mrs. Higgins by wrapping her in Connie's fur coat, and when she is asleep they throw the dead child into the sea. Later, out of despair over her loss, Mrs. Higgins commits suicide by jumping into the sea still wearing Connie's prized possession.
Gus, the Brooklyn seaman whose leg has been seriously injured when the freighter was torpedoed, is diagnosed by Willy as having gangrene. Again the passengers are unable to pull together and amputate Gus's leg, and Willy is left to perform the primitive and gruesome operation. In one of the screen's most terrifying scenes, we see Willy give Gus some whiskey, the only thing aboard approaching medicine, and sterilize the jackknife to perform the necessary surgery.
Following the operation, with the passengers asleep and Willy at the helm, Gus, in his postoperative hallucinations, sees Willy drink from his hidden canteen; Willy, now forced to maintain his cover if any of them are to survive, pushes Gus overboard. When the truth is discovered, the American passengers turn on Willy, in Hitchcock's words, "like a pack of dogs" and beat him to death. Only Joe refuses to participate in the brutal murder.
The passengers are saved through no plan of their own when an Alliedship destroys the approaching German supply ship and rescues them, but not before a young injured German swims to the lifeboat for safety. When he pulls a pistol on the lifeboat occupants, they disarm him and then, ironically, pull him aboard. Once again Hitchcock's message is driven home. In order to overpower and destroy the enemy, people must forget their personal differences and join forces.
While Willy, the German, is the catalyst for the action in Lifeboat, it is the superb, offbeat casting of Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter that makes the film memorable. Bankhead's unique brand of theatrical acting was never used better on the screen. In the microcosm of Hitchcock's allegory, Connie represents the cynical, materialistic American. As we see her stripped of her possessions—her camera, her typewriter, her fur coat, and finally her prized diamond bracelet, which is used unsuccessfully as bait to catch a fish, she is revealed as a woman of substance and humanity. The script also incorporates the sensual attraction between Connie and Kovac. While drawn to him physically, she reviles his coarseness and his tattooed body by saying, "I never could understand the necessity of making a billboard out of the torso." Later,she mellows and tattooes her initials on his chest with her lipstick.
Bankhead's character also provides the only levity among the characters. At the end when they are about to be rescued, she exclaims, "Twenty minutes! Good heavens! My nails, my hair, my face. I'm a mess." Then seeing Kovac's dismay, she adds, "Yes, darling, one of my best friends is in the navy!" Although this was Bankhead's finest screen performance, the Motion Picture Academy overlooked her entirely for a Best Actress nomination. The New York Film Critics, however, did name her Best Actress of 1944.
Lifeboat provided Hitchcock with the problem of how to make his own brief appearance in the film (his well-known "trademark"), since the script called for only one closely integrated set. His solution, his favorite, he says, was to use "before" and "after" photos of himself advertising a diet drug called Redueo. The ad is seen on the back of a newspaper which William Bendix holds at one point inthe film, and Hitchcock said he received hundreds of letters asking where to buy the wonder diet drug. He also appears quite briefly as a dead body floating face down in the water at the beginning of the film.