Kenneth Macgowan

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Lifeboat Review


Excellent
Who would've pegged Alfred Hitchcock for a moral humanist? An appeal to our common humanism is not something we associate with a man whose métier was the psychological horrors perverting the patina of the white middle class. Lifeboat, then, is a rare instance (along with Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, also from this period) in the 51-year directing career of the legendary suspense-master of socially conscious storytelling. In Francois Truffaut's famous interview with him, transcribed in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director recounts how he intended Lifeboat to be a microcosm of the Allied war effort. Working from a story treatment by John Steinbeck and a script by Jo Swerling, Lifeboat became the director's appeal to the Allied nations to put their differences and personal biases aside, join ranks, and fight the Nazis, then overrunning Europe, as a coordinated, united force.

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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