Lifeboat: Alfred Hitchcock Thriller Marks 80th Anniversary

Lifeboat. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Lifeboat marks the 80th anniversary since Alfred Hitchcock’s World War II survival thriller was released in theaters in 1944.

This film falls into the same vein as Foreign Correspondent. The two films, while different, deal with World War 2 in their own way. The idea of people isolated on a lifeboat provided Hitchcock with his own challenge. How do you make this into a film? Filming ten people on a small boat sounds easy but it really isn’t. Talk to filmmakers and cinematographers about filming on water. Meanwhile, John Steinbeck wanted to show his own patriotism and contribute to the war. The FBI’s file on him kind of ruined this. Anyway, he came up with the story for the film and the rest is history. Jo Swerling took over writing after Steinbeck left to cover the war in Europe. Steinbeck wasn’t happy with the film and preferred having his name removed. The studio did nothing in response.

Tallulah Bankhead gets lead billing for the first time in 11 years as Constance “Connie” Porter–putting her in a lifeboat may be outrageous but it works in this situation. How do you get the most random people onto the same lifeboat? Meanwhile, some of the other cast members were just getting their start in Hollywood. Anyway, the gist is that a U-boat shoots a torpedo at a passenger vessel, leading it to sink. Taking in a German U-boat captain, Willi (Walter Slezak) did lead to a lot of controversy back in the 1940s, especially with its sympathetic views. It causes no shortage of controversy for the passengers either. Many would prefer to throw him overboard. After all, the Allied powers were at war with Germany. Regarding a potential rescue, the film leaves something of an open ending.

Next to the film’s treatment of the German captain, it has a big problem in the depiction of Joe Spencer (Canada Lee). The actor might have done what he can when it came to rewriting the character and giving a better portrayal. At the end of the day, the character is very much of the era. If you make this film today, the script would need to be rewritten. But then again, if you excise the character all together, people will mention the lack of diverse. It really is a lose-lose situation.

Hitchcock is known for making cameos in his films. His cameo here comes 25 minutes in–not in person but in the form of a Reduco ad. The ad plays into his own efforts in losing weight with both a before and after photo. It’s a clever way of inserting himself into a film where an in-person cameo would be impossible.

Beyond the characters, this is a very challenging film from both a directing and cinematography standpoint. Filming around water, even in a Hollywood tank, is not easy. Splash this much water around and people are going to get sick. Now, do all of this while filming in chronological order and you’re just asking for trouble. Despite critical reaction at the time, Hitchcock and cinematographer Glen MacWilliams would earn Oscar nominations, respective. Steinbeck, too, despite not wanting anything to do with the film after watching it.

Surprisingly, there is very little amount of music from composer Hugo W. Friedhofer. Hitchcock’s thought process is different than many of us as is thought is where would the orchestra be coming from. I mean, it’s a survival thriller during World War II! Are audiences not able to suspend disbelief?!? Just some food for thought.

Making films such as Lifeboat was Hitchcock’s way of contributing to the war efforts.

DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
CAST: Tallulah Bankhead, with William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee

20th Century Fox released Lifeboat in theaters on January 28, 1944. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.