After their ship is sunk in the Atlantic by Germans, eight people are stranded in a lifeboat. Their problems are further compounded when they pick up a ninth passenger — the Nazi captain from the U-boat that torpedoed them. With powerful suspense and emotion, this legendary classic reveals the strengths and frailties of individuals under extraordinary duress.
Shipwrecks are often visually spectacular on film, but the real interpersonal drama occurs after the catastrophe, when the chaos has subsided and those cast adrift must deal with their desperate circumstances and bleak prospects. Director Alfred Hitchcock astutely examines this tense situation and all of its pregnant possibilities in Lifeboat, one of his most layered and intimate films. With typical alacrity, Hitchcock dives into the conflict, eliminating any extraneous elements (like the shipwreck!) and focusing on the disparate characters huddled in the small wooden vessel, the last vestige of a transatlantic steamer that was torpedoed by a German submarine (also destroyed in the skirmish). Produced at the height of World War II, Lifeboat wears its political views on its sleeve, but it's hardly a propaganda film. On the contrary, the movie drew ire from a number of contemporary critics who felt it muddied America's patriotic waters by painting too favorable a portrait of our enemy.
As the film opens, a stylish, sophisticated woman wearing a diamond bracelet and mink coat sits alone in a ramshackle lifeboat amid the sunken ship's field of debris. She seems surprisingly unperturbed, bothered more by a run in her stocking than her unsettling predicament. We soon learn she's Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), an esteemed yet arrogant photojournalist able and willing to confront any crisis without batting a thickly mascara-ed eye. Connie can take care of herself, but within minutes, a number of other survivors frantically swim to the lifeboat and hoist themselves aboard. They include John Kovac (John Hodiak), a gruff ship worker with a cocky attitude; the injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), an unpretentious German-American so disgusted by Hitler he renounced his family name of Schmidt; Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a wealthy business magnate; British radio operator Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn); African-American steward Joe Spencer (Canada Lee); a U.S. Army nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson); and a distraught mother (Heather Angel) who clings to her dead baby.
Yet among these disheveled and traumatized patriots, an interloper lurks. Willi (Walter Slezak) is impulsively pulled to safety, but it's quickly apparent he's a German U-boat survivor, and though everyone harbors suspicions regarding his motives and trustworthiness, they resist the urge to toss him back into the drink. They hope his navigation expertise will help them reach the safe haven of Bermuda, but as the days creep by, storms, strife, sickness, divided loyalties, and dwindling rations imperil everyone, making their rescue - and their fate - anything but certain.
Though it predates Lord of the Flies by more than a decade, Lifeboat often evokes William Golding's classic novel as it zeroes in on the power struggles, ideological differences, and pecking order of the lifeboat inhabitants, who represent a microcosm of World War II-era society. A conservative capitalist, a liberal worker, a stuck-up society dame, an imperious Nazi, a humble black man, a nurturing mother, and a second-generation immigrant all try to assert themselves and share their unique perspectives. And just like the Allies, they must learn to stop sniping, accept each other's differences, and cooperate to defeat a common enemy. It isn't easy, and tempers often flare, but as they all expose their strengths and frailties and evolve for better or worse, they brandish an undeniable and very individual humanity.
Hitchcock himself devised the film's premise. According to Drew Casper's commentary track, Hitchcock came up with the idea after filming the climactic ocean plane crash scene in Foreign Correspondent, in which a handful of passengers cling to one of the aircraft's detached wings. Hitchcock wanted to build a film around a similar gaggle of plucky survivors, and enlisted acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck to write the story. But although the movie's credits boldly herald Steinbeck's name, the finished product bears only a sketchy resemblance to his treatment. A number of writers, including Ben Hecht, worked on the screenplay, proving too many cooks don't necessarily spoil the broth. The well-drawn characters all serve a purpose and their philosophical conversations infuse this survival tale with welcome depth and meaning.
Lifeboat may not stand as one of Hitchcock's most suspenseful films, but it's certainly one of his most textured and introspective. Much like he would do with Rope a few years later, Hitchcock maximizes the confined setting, always finding interesting ways to document the action. The fluid camera work combined with the boat's constant motion mimic the ocean's undulations (several cast members suffered from seasickness during shooting) and extreme close-ups heighten the confining sense of claustrophobia. And how, might you ask, does the Master of Suspense insert himself into this nautical drama? Well, check out one of the photos below for the creative answer.
Bankhead eerily resembles Bette Davis in looks, vocal timbre, mannerisms, and acting style (the comparisons would dog both stars throughout their respective careers, fueling a rivalry that lasted for decades), but her performance brims with conviction. (The New York Film Critics Circle would honor her as the year's Best Actress, but she did not receive an Oscar nomination.) Sadly, Bankhead's film appearances were all too rare - Lifeboat marked a return to the screen after a 12-year absence - yet her talent and magnetism make us wish she ventured from Broadway to Hollywood more often. Slezak is equally good as the duplicitous Nazi (so good, in fact, many critics carped the film depicted Nazis as smarter than and superior to Americans), and Bendix files one of his most sensitive portrayals as the wounded common man whose injury threatens to change his life forever.
Lifeboat would garner three Oscar nods, including one for Hitchcock as Best Director. (He would lose the award to Leo McCarey for Going My Way, and Steinbeck would lose the Best Original Story prize to McCarey as well.) Hitchcock only received five Oscar nominations throughout his long, legendary career, but it's heartening the Academy honored Lifeboat's innovation and artistry. Those elements define most of Hitchcock's films, and though this taut, offbeat tale of confinement, unity, and courage may not fit the typical Hitchcock mold, it remains a thoughtful, absorbing, and substantive work.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Lifeboat arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with reversible cover art. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer doesn't quite measure up to recent Fox films released by Kino Lorber, but it's often very impressive. Some intermittent specks and blotches dot the print, and some faint vertical lines can be gleaned through the mist and haze that float across the image early in the narrative, but as the film progresses, the imperfections vanish, leaving a clear yet textured picture that aptly reflects the tale's gritty nature. Grain is visible, but blends nicely into the film's fabric, and excellent gray scale variance supplies a welcome sense of depth. Black levels are rich and deep, close-ups are sharp and highlight fine facial details well, and the enhanced clarity rarely betrays the artifice of the studio tank, mattes, and rear projection work. The fluid camera movements never affect image stability, no crush creeps into the picture, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Though I've never seen the 2005 DVD, it's impossible to imagine Lifeboat looking any better than it does here, so Hitchcock fans shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The soundscape of Lifeboat is rather subtle, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track does its best to maximize the nuances. Creaking wood and gentle breezes are distinctly rendered, as are more potent sonic accents like howling wind and pounding surf during the storm sequences. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, although bass frequencies seem a tad anemic. The music score by Hugo Friedhofer only plays over the opening and closing credits, but exudes a robust tone, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, even when two conversations compete for our attention. No distortion creeps into the mix, and any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been meticulously erased. Though the Lifeboat soundtrack isn't as showy as other Hitchcock audio tracks, this workmanlike transfer honors it well and sufficiently immerses us in the drama.
A couple of new supplements and a couple of old ones that have been ported over from the film's 2005 DVD release enhance the appeal of this release.
Audio Commentaries -
Two commentaries are included on the disc. The first, which was recorded expressly for this Blu-ray edition, features film scholar Tim Lucas, who provides an intelligent, measured, and always interesting account of the film's production, as well as a cogent analysis of Lifeboat's themes. He talks about the minimal involvement of writer John Steinbeck (despite his massive screen credit), cites Hitchcock's penchant for "deconstructing" his heroines, addresses some of the negative critical reaction to the film, describes some technical effects, and supplies biographical information about every member of the ensemble cast. Lucas also analyzes the plot and characters (sometimes to a fault), likens the lifeboat to a "floating democracy," and shares some anecdotes and bits of trivia in this absorbing, fluid discussion.
The second commentary, recorded in 2005 for the DVD release, features film professor Drew Casper, whose breathless enthusiasm for what he calls "nothing less than a masterwork" is contagious. His remarks focus primarily on Hitchcock's style and the film's production, and he delivers an in-depth lecture that's informative and involving. He discusses, among other things, Hitchcock's arrival in Hollywood, the "byzantine" evolution of the Lifeboat script, the suave, seductive Hitchcock villain, Hitchcock's inventive Lifeboat cameo, his chummy relationship with Bankhead, and how he approached the censors. Casper also makes the case that Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but also the Master of Romance. Though a couple of lengthy gaps toward the end halt the commentary's momentum, this is still a worthwhile track that merits a listen.
Featurette: "Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat: The Theater of War" (HD, 20 minutes) - This well-produced 2005 featurette examines the ripped-from-the-headlines story, the differences between Steinbeck's novella and the finished screenplay, casting and set construction, Hitchcock's clever cameo, Bankhead's diva behavior, and the controversy that swirled about the film at the time of its initial release. Rare storyboards and production stills complement the discussion, which is peppered with interview clips featuring Hitchcock's daughter Pat and granddaughter Mary Stone, as well as Hitchcock scholar Drew Casper and Steinbeck expert Robert Demott.
Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Clip (HD, 11 minutes) - This audio excerpt from the legendary series of interviews between the Master of Suspense and French director François Truffaut (recorded in 1962) allows Hitchcock to expound on a number of topics concerning Lifeboat, including the enormous technical problems he encountered, working with a producer (which was a rare occurrence), and the complaints of several critics who attacked the film for being anti-American. In addition, Hitchcock discusses his up-close-and-personal shooting style that later would be adopted by television, admits he "liked the challenge" of the film's characters, and says the story is a microcosm of World War II. Color lobby cards, international poster art, black-and-white scene stills, behind-the-scenes production photos, and lots of film clips make this fascinating dialogue visually interesting as well.
Trailers (HD, 8 minutes) - A Blu-ray release preview for Lifeboat compiled by Kino Lorber from scenes from the film is one of four trailers included on the disc. The other previews are for 23 Paces to Baker Street, Compulsion, and Five Miles to Midnight.
Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most unique films. A taut World War II survival tale that chronicles the conflicts that both divide and bond a disparate group of characters who are cast adrift when a German sub torpedoes their steamship, this fascinating study of trust, diplomacy, and manipulations remains relevant more than seven decades after its initial release. A claustrophobic single setting, potent themes, simmering tension, and fine acting by a top-notch ensemble cast distinguish this wartime thriller, which mirrors the political turbulence of the times. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray presentation grabs our attention with solid video and audio transfers and a healthy spate of supplements, all of which make this offbeat Hitchcock classic well worth rediscovering. Recommended.