Part mystery, part wartime polemic, Lifeboat
finds director Alfred Hitchcock tackling a cinematic challenge that foreshadows the self-imposed handicaps of Rope
and Rear Window
. As with those subsequent features, Hitchcock confines his action and characters to a single set, in this instance the lone surviving lifeboat from an Allied freighter sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. A less confident, ingenious filmmaker might have opened up John Steinbeck's dialogue-driven character study beyond the battered boat and its cargo of survivors, but Hitchcock instead revels in his predicament to exploit the enforced intimacy between his characters.
Indeed, we never actually see the doomed freighter--the smoking ship's funnel beneath the credits simply sinks beneath the waves, and we're plunged into the escalating tensions between those who gradually find their way to the boat, a band of eight English and American passengers and crew, plus a German sailor (Walter Slezak) rescued from the U-boat, itself destroyed by the freighter's deck gun. Heading the cast and inevitably commanding their and our attention is the cello-voiced Tallulah Bankhead as Connie Porter, a cynical, sophisticated writer whose priorities seem to be hanging onto her mink and keeping her lipstick fresh. Gradually, the others find Porter and her lifeboat, forming a temporary community that inevitably suggests a careful cross section of archetypes, from wealthy industrialist (Henry Hull) to ship's boiler men (John Hodiak and William Bendix).
Hitchcock juggles the interpersonal skirmishes between the boat's occupants with the mystery of their German prisoner, which itself becomes a meditation on the fine line between nationalism and morality, a line that Slezak walks delicately until his identity is resolved. Visually, Hitchcock transforms his back-lot set and its rear-projected cloudbanks into a desolate stretch of ocean, while capturing the horror of an amputation through an economical set of images culminating in an empty boot. --Sam Sutherland