Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s four films that he self-consciously set in a confined, limited space. The others are Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Rear Window. Lifeboat is set entirely on a lifeboat, filled with the refugees from a merchant supply ship that was torpedoed by a Nazi sub. It’s not quite a typical Hitchcock film, though. It is less about suspense, or even survival, and more a psychological drama.
The film opens with a shot of a Merchant Marine ship being sunk by a Nazi U-Boat. Next we see some debris in the water and a lifeboat, occupied only by one extremely well dressed lady (Tallulah Bankhead), with mink coat, diamond bracelet, luggage, cigarette and typewriter. And a video camera, which she soon loses. She is then joined by several members of the crew, a rich industrialist, a nurse, a young woman and her dead baby and a German survivor of the sub that also sank.
When they rescue the German captain of the sub (Walter Slezak), there is disagreement about whether to allow him to stay or not. The male crewmen, especially Kovac, (John Hodiak), say throw him back over. Ritterhouse, a very wealthy man (Henry Hull), believes that they cannot act as Nazis have done, even in poetic justice. The nurse, Alice (Mary Anderson), is also against throwing him over. Joe (Canada Lee), a black man from the ship, declines to get involved in the voting and Connie Porter (Bankhead) is all for allowing him to stay since he is the only real sailor they have; except the navigator, Stanley (Hume Cronyn). The vote is in favor of allowing the German to stay.
The woman who lost her baby jumps overboard and one of the ship’s crewman, Gus (William Bendix), develops gangrene in his leg. The only person who knows how to operate is the Nazi, Willie, and with help, they soon remove Gus’s leg. There is also debate about which direction they should sail. Willi has a compass, but the rest of the people don’t know it. They want to get to Bermuda, but Willi is trying to manipulate the situation so they will head towards the German fleet. Eventually, they catch on to him, but there is a storm and Willi takes over, directing everyone what to do. In the morning, the sails and food and everything has been lost (including Connie’s luggage and typewriter) and Willi is now in charge by dint of his strength (everyone else is tired and he can row), his willpower, his knowledge of the sea and everyone else’s apathy and despair.
When Lifeboat was released, there was some criticism of Hitchcock about how he made Willi, the Nazi character, so much smarter than the rest of the occupants of the lifeboat and how he depicted them as squabbling and too obsessed with their own concerns to challenge Willi initially. Hitchcock defended himself by saying that he was trying to make a point that the allies need to stop fighting and pull together to defeat the Axis armies. However, I think you could argue that there is something even more going on.
The way that Willi takes over is because there’s a crisis and he rises to meet it (the storm), he seems to have knowledge (navigation), strength (he’s hidden away water from the rest of them so he is not weak from dehydration), he does some good (operates on Gus’ leg). It is a microcosm for how dictators like Hitler get in power in the first place during desperate times. People are too obsessed with their own concerns (there are two respective couples finding themselves attracted to each other), their hunger and dehydration and are impressed with him and they simply let him lead because he’s got a plan and his aura of superiority saps the initiative from them.
The movie is not just a microcosm for how dictators get in power, but also for how people sometimes rid themselves of tyrants: temporary insanity and mob rule. When they discover that Willi has been hiding water for himself and that he murdered Gus, they go crazy and attack him and push him over the side of the boat. It is a chilling moment, shades of a revolution.
Hitchcock manages to throw in a variety of other interest in the film, too. The story was originated by him and he worked with John Steinbeck, who ultimately was unhappy with the finished product. He felt that Joe, a black character, was too stereotypical, though the actor (Canada Lee) tried to round out the character. Joe spends most of the film not wishing to get involved in the disputes and even when he is invited (rather surprisingly) to vote, he declines. It is only at the end when he takes definite, positive action.
There is also shades of those kinds of stories about people from different classes and backgrounds getting stranded on a desert island, with all social trappings being stripped away and revealing people as they are. People are attracted to each other, people argue and fight. There is a surprising lack of political conviction from most of the characters, except Kovac (John Hodiak), who Connie accuses of being a “fellow traveler” (not a communist, but somebody willing to work with communists to achieve certain goals). Despite their differences, however, Connie and Kovac come together, though he doesn’t like how much she holds on to her possessions (position, what she’s made of herself). At one point Willi tells her that Kovac doesn’t like the bracelet that she keeps flaunting, that she received from her first husband who got her out of poverty.
It’s quite a fascinating film. Tallulah Bankhead is absolutely wonderful as the self-loving reporter with biting humor and a definite thing for the bare chested and tattooed Kovac. She is also, behind Willi, the smartest one on the boat and is the one to shake the group out of its torpor after killing Willi, and to get them to act in the interest of their own survival.
Walter Slezak is also good as the wily Nazi who believes utterly in his own superiority and treats the rest of them like children to be taken care of, but also as less human then he is. It really bothers him that Gus changed his name from Schmidt to Smith, for being ashamed of being German. Hume Cronyn is also very sympathetic as Stanley, the navigator, who falls in love with Alice and doesn’t want the responsibilities of leadership, though he does possess more knowledge than many people. William Bendix is the sailor who’s dating a girl named Rosie, who loves to dance, and is afraid that when he loses his leg Rosie will leave him.
And Alfred Hitchcock even manages to get a cameo in the film. His original idea was to be a corpse floating in the water, but ultimately, he ends up in a weight loss ad on the back of a newspaper, showing before and after pictures of himself.
It’s not the kind of movie I will probably find myself re-watching multiple times, like some of his others, but it is extremely interesting. He takes democracy, race relations (in a small degree), social standing, fascism, mob rule and distills it in a small setting and the result is extremely provocative.