I loved Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and am so glad I’ve embarked upon this challenge to watch one old movie a week. With Tallulah Bankhead and Hume Cronyn in an ensemble of survivors whose ship has been sunk during WWII, Lifeboat blends tension and morality. In Hitchcock’s hands, there’s ambiguity and sophistication in every scene.
The film opens with the high class Connie Porter, a self-absorbed, jaded newspaper columnist, sitting alone in a lifeboat. Not a hair out of place, she looks bored as if she’s waiting to board a first class flight to Paris. One by one, other survivors make it to the boat. In its 1944 review, the New York Times describe the cast as
Within their battered lifeboat are assembled an assortment of folks who typify various strata of a free, democratic society. There is, first, a parasitic woman, representative of the luxury fringe, who is opportunistic and cynical—a picturesque trifler in every respect. Then there is an American business tycoon, likewise opportunistic and cynical; two meek and pathetic women and four men of the torpedoed ship’s crew. These latter are two tough but aimless fellows, a Cockney dreamer and a pensive Negro—all of them clearly indicative of an inarticulate class.
While one character has a British accent, I wouldn’t call it cockney. The African American character doesn’t say much and is rather stereotyped, but I wouldn’t call his class inarticulate. He didn’t talk much and allegorically I suppose you could say his group has been silenced. Since the War’s over and won, viewers won’t share The New York Times’ concern about showing the German as more capable than the others. He was their prisoner in many ways and they chose to defer to him at times, but weren’t under his control exactly.
The last person to make it to the boat is a Nazi, from the U-Boat that torpedoed the other characters’ boat. Should he stay or not? Should he be trusted or not? While their survival matters, the Nazi issue adds great tension and is, where the most drama rests. At first just the working class guy wants to chuck the German overboard. The others outnumber him. Later the German proves both useful and deceptive. The plot isn’t predictable and the ending isn’t what they’d do today.
My DVD came with a scholarly commentary, which was of interest, but since the film itself was so compelling, I turned it off. Perhaps I’ll watch again with it. I did learn though that Hitchcock and Bankhead got along exchanging barbs as they worked. He called her Baghead and she “pronounced his name like it began with a B.” Also, while Steinbeck received credit for the film, he didn’t write the script they used. He sort of put together a short story and wasn’t able to transition from fiction to film.
I enjoyed Bankhead’s wit and strength and will look for more of her films.
Crowther. B. (1944). Lifeboat. The New York Times.
Gill. B. (1972). Profile: Tallulah Bankhead. The New Yorker.