Lifeboat (1944) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, Hume Cronyn
An interesting companion piece to yesterday’s review (“Titanic”) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest and best films – “Lifeboat”. Hitchcock likely took on the project as a creative challenge to himself - a film told entirely on a lifeboat of people rescued from a sunken ship during WWII. Hitchcock’s talents are put to the test to make 90mins in a small contained boat on the water, exciting and believable. It’s an amazing achievement which further supports the greatness of the Master.
The film begins on the water (of course) as the camera shows the trail of debris left by a sunken civilian ship. It’s 1944 Atlantic, which was a hotbed of naval activity. An upper class gossip columnist journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) climbs aboard the lifeboat to safety. In these opening moments one-by-one more survivors swim their way to the boat. Willy (Walter Slezak) who has the natural leadership qualities butts heads with the snobby Porter who insists on documenting the adventure on her portable typewriter. Minor squabbles are pushed aside when the last survivor climbs aboard, a German naval officer (William Yetter)
Should the civilians toss the German overboard, or save his life like everyone else? This becomes the major point of conflict. The German is kept aboard, and he proves his worth by navigating the ship in the right direction toward land. Or is he? Beneath his congenial demeanor he appears to slyly subvert their cause for rescue. Who will survive the small scale battle of wills?
The film could have easily been just a ‘novelty’ film, but the studio took project seriously, hired famed author John Steinbeck to write the story, hire dthe hot talent of Hitchcock to direct and cast popular star Tallulah Bankhead. Getting Bankhead (perhaps the Paris Hilton of her day) to be in a film where she gets wet and thrown around a boat in the middle of an ocean was a major coup. The casting worked perfectly because Bankhead’s real life snooty personality shows through in her character. The unique and varied personalities of Bendix, Slezak, Cronyn and Yetters round out a perfect ensemble cast.
But the big challenge for Hitchcock was how to keep the audience interested without boring them by staying in the same dull claustrophobic location the entire film. Hitchcock sought to use a different camera angle for every shot in the film. Usually dialogue and conversation are cut together using overlapping camera angles. Of course, Hitchcock meticulously storyboarded the film and as a result accomplished a miracle of mise-en-scene. It truly is remarkable.
For ‘high concept” films, few films top can “Lifeboat” for successfully executing its self-imposed restraints. “Hitchcock would do it again a few years later with “Rope” – an 80 min film made to look like one continuous shot. Other attempts at doing this type of high concept have mixed results – Robert Zemeckis' “Castaway” failed because he took Hanks off the island in the third act, “Speed” was a success, but Jan De Bont took the audience off the bus in the third act as well. Alfred Hitchcock never leaves the boat. He created his rules, stuck to them and executed it to perfection. Enjoy.
Buy Lifeboat (Special Edition)