Lifeboat (1944)


Introduction

Lifeboat is a 1944 American survival film directed by Alfred Hitchcock from a story by John Steinbeck.

The film stars Tallulah Bankhead with William Bendix. Also in the cast are Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson and John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn and Canada Lee.

It is set entirely on a lifeboat launched from a passenger vessel torpedoed and sunk by a Nazi U-boat.

Outline

Several British and American civilians, service members and merchant mariners are stuck in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic after their ship and a U-boat sink each other in combat. Willi, a German survivor, is pulled aboard and denies being the U-boat’s captain. During an animated debate, engine room crewman Kovac demands the German be thrown out to drown. However, the others object, with radioman Stanley, wealthy industrialist Rittenhouse and columnist Connie Porter, who speaks German, succeeding in arguing that he be allowed to stay. Porter, initially alone in the boat, had managed to bring her luggage with her, and her primary concern at first is a run in her stocking. She is thrilled at having filmed the battle between the two vessels, but her movie camera is the first in a series of her possessions to be lost overboard in a succession of incidents.

Among the passengers is Mrs. Higley, a young British woman whose infant child is dead when they are pulled from the water after being saved by steward “Joe” Spencer. After being treated by a US Army nurse, Alice, she must be tied down to stop her from hurting herself. The woman, still wrapped in Porter’s mink coat for warmth, sneaks off the boat while the other passengers sleep, drowning herself in the night. Willi is revealed to be the U-boat captain.

The film then follows the lifeboat inhabitants as they attempt to organise their rations, set a course for Bermuda, and coexist as they try to survive. The passengers also cooperate through this stress, such as when they must amputate the leg of one of their boatmates, the German-American Gus Smith, because of gangrene.

Kovac takes charge, rationing the little food and water they have, but Willi, who has been consulting a concealed compass and reveals that he speaks English, wrests control away from him in a storm.

One morning, while the others are sleeping, Smith, who has been drinking seawater and is hallucinating, catches Willi drinking water from a hidden flask. Gus tries to tell Stanley but Stanley doesn’t believe him because Gus also tells him he just had an ice-cold one with Rosie. Willi tries to coax Gus overboard, telling him that Rosie is waiting, but Gus keeps talking about the water, and, afraid someone will hear, Willi pushes him over the side. Gus’ calls for help rouse Stanley and the others, but it is too late.

Alice wishes she could cry for Gus, but tears are made of water. When they realise that Willi is sweating, Stanley remembers what Gus told him. Joe pulls the flask from Willi’s shirt, but it breaks when Willi grabs at it. Willi explains that like everyone on a U-boat he had food tablets and energy pills. To survive, one must have a plan.

In a spasm of anger led by Alice, they descend upon him as a group, all but Joe, who tries to pull Alice back. Stanley grabs a piece of board and hits him repeatedly; the others use their fists to beat him and force him overboard. He clings to the side, out of camera, and while the others feebly pummel him, Rittenhouse grabs Gus’ boot and delivers two sweeping and, by the sound, skull-crushing blows.

Later on, as they drift, Rittenhouse says that he will never understand Willi’s ingratitude. “What do you do with people like that?” No one answers. Stanley proposes to Alice, and she accepts, although they have little hope of surviving.

Connie chastises everyone for giving up and pauses in her tirade on the exclamation “ye gods and little fishes!” Inspired, she offers her bracelet as bait. A fish strikes, but Joe sights a ship, and in the rush for the oars the line goes overboard and the bracelet is lost.

It is the German supply ship to which Willi had been steering them. But before a launch can pick them up, both it and the supply ship are sunk by gunfire from an Allied warship over the horizon.

Kovac estimates that the Allied vessel will be there in 20 minutes. Connie panics over the state of her hair, nails and face. Joe hopes his wife isn’t worried. Rittenhouse admires a picture of Joe’s family – and still persists in calling him “George”. Rittenhouse promises to honour his poker debt to Kovac: $50,000 ($726,000 today). Connie tells Kovac he is going to take it because he owes her a bracelet, a typewriter and a camera. He smiles and says “Yes ma’am.”

A frightened, wounded, young German seaman is pulled aboard the lifeboat. Rittenhouse is now all for killing him, and the others, including Kovac, have to hold him back. The German sailor pulls a gun but is disarmed by Joe. The seaman asks in German, “Aren’t you going to kill me?” Kovac muses, “‘Aren’t you going to kill me?’ What are you going to do with people like that?” Stanley says “I don’t know, I was thinking of Mrs. Higley and her baby, and Gus.” “Well,” Connie says, “maybe they can answer that .”

Cast

  • Tallulah Bankhead as Constance “Connie” Porter.
  • William Bendix as Gus Smith.
  • Walter Slezak as Kapitan Willi.
  • Mary Anderson as Alice MacKenzie.
  • John Hodiak as John Kovac.
  • Henry Hull as Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr.
  • Heather Angel as Mrs. Higley.
  • Hume Cronyn as Stanley “Sparks” Garrett.
  • Canada Lee as Joe Spencer.
  • William Yetter Jr. appeared on screen in a speaking role as the German sailor but was not listed in the film’s credits.
  • Except for a cameo appearance in Stage Door Canteen (1943), Bankhead had not appeared in a film since Faithless in 1932.
    • She was paid $75,000 ($1.1 million today) for her work in Lifeboat.

Trivia

  • Lifeboat was in production from 03 August through 17 November 1943
  • The film is the first in Hitchcock’s “limited-setting” films, the others being Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954).
  • It is the only film Hitchcock made for 20th Century Fox.
  • The film received three Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Original Story and Best Cinematography – Black and White. Tallulah Bankhead won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actress of the year.
  • Though highly controversial in its time for what many interpreted as its sympathetic depiction of a German U-boat captain, Lifeboat is now viewed more favourably and has been listed by several modern critics as one of Hitchcock’s more underrated films.
  • Adaptations:
    • NBC broadcast a one-hour radio adaptation of the film on Screen Directors Playhouse on November 16, 1950. Hitchcock directed, and Bankhead reprised her role from the film. The cast also featured Jeff Chandler and Sheldon Leonard.
    • In 1993, Lifeboat was remade as a science fiction TV movie under the title Lifepod. Moving the action from a lifeboat to a spaceship’s escape capsule in the year 2169, the remake starred Ron Silver, who also directed, Robert Loggia, and CCH Pounder. The film was aired on the Fox channel in the US. The film credited Hitchcock and Harry Sylvester for the story.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Producer(s): Darryl F. Zanuck, Kenneth Macgowan, William Goetz, and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Writer(s): Jo Swerling (screenplay), John Steinbeck (story), Alfred Hitchcock (idea), and Ben Hecht (uncredited).
  • Music: Hugo W. Friedhofer.
  • Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams and Arthur C. Miller.
  • Editor(s): Dorothy Spencer.
  • Production: 20th Century Fox.
  • Distributor(s): 20th Century Fox.
  • Release Date: 11 January 1944 (New York City, US).
  • Running time: 96 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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