Leave Her to Heaven stakes out its territory in the form of a flashback, as novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) returns to a small lakeside town that has now become tainted with the aftertaste of murder. Homespun lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins) relates the sorry tale of how things came to such a pass and the film-length flashback begins -- noir fatalism in the blinding daylight. We are taken back to the genesis of all this misery, the ravishing but deadly Ellen Berent (played to evil perfection by Gene Tierney, in an iconic film noir role), who meets Harland on a train and quickly latches onto the poor sap, and soon her berserk compulsion for him drags the innocent Harland and his loved ones down into the dark waters of tormented possessiveness.
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As a polemic, Lifeboat is closer to John Ford's similarly themed and conceived Stagecoach (1939) than to any of the director's own movies. Hitchcock changes the terrain from land to water and replaces Fords' frontier travelers with the similarly disparate survivors of a U-boat attack. We have John (John Hodiak), a working-class American stiff pitted against Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the inveterate capitalist (read: Nazi appeaser), and Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a saucy gadfly/columnist. Meanwhile, a gentle romance simmers between Alice (Mary Anderson), a lovelorn nurse, and Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a humble navigator. George (Canada Lee), a black cook (what else?) with a penchant for the Gospels stands as the group's moral pillar; he is apolitical and totally good-hearted. Hitchcock gives an episodic shape to Swerling's flailing narrative, focusing on the survivors' attempts to rescue one of their own, the wounded and mentally faltering Gus (William Bendix). As they do, they battle the stormy elements, the scorn and suspicion for each other that society has ingrained into them, and, chiefly, their collective mistrust for a Nazi U-boat sailor who's also in the dinghy, and in whom, despite his villainous credentials, they must invest their faith.
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