Lifeboat Movie Review
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.
Swerling's script stays true to each of its characters. It never softens their edges and boldly traces their war-weary dynamic, the breaking down of their social veneers, and their descent into the vengeful darkness where none of them imagined they could ever go. Most admirable is how Hitchcock's calibrates our attitude towards the U-boat captain, a character who constantly tests our sympathies and whose actions, though contrary to the interests of the others, are still rigorously in keeping with his own nature. This is territory that Hitchcock revels in -- the ambivalence at work in each of us, neither wholly evil nor wholly good but a combustible mix of both -- and where he marshals the forces that drive his suspense.
The lessons that Lifeboat's survivors ultimately learn, the stripping away of their class identities to work for the common good, all finally feels too morally on-the-nose. The characterizations lack the depth and nuance that a truly humanist artist would've brought to the material. Still, Lifeboat's pleasures outweigh the simplistic nature of its characterizations. The cast is uniformly good and demonstrates something not often cited about Hitchcock: his talent for eliciting spot-on work from his performers. The movie boasts the filmmaker's trademark technical polish: His command over editing, framing, and optical effects deftly masters the challenges of a water-borne production (especially in 1944), an action-adventure, no less.
"You're only thinking of yourselves," the Nazi cries to the others during a typhoon sequence, "you're not thinking of the boat." That line best underscores Lifeboat's message, and points to the cause for all of the dangers to follow. That the "enemy" utters that line made it particularly bristling in 1944 (when critics lashed out at Hitchcock for his unpatriotic portrayal of Brits and Americans), and it still resonates today: We may have rallied together and beaten the Nazis but, since then, we've become more fractious and self-absorbed than ever.