Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

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