This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat was written by UW Madison student Blake Davenport. A 35mm print of Lifeboat will screen as part of the Cinematheque's 'More Hitchcock!' series on Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.
Lifeboat: Hitchcock on Survival and Wartime Conditions
By Blake Davenport
As I stare out my window on this particularly cold and rainy night, I can’t help but identify with the many protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, alone and hungry with just the wind and sounds of Lake Mendota to keep me company. Well slight difference being that I’m curled up in my warm apartment waiting for pizza while they were adrift at sea.... but parallels nonetheless.
Lifeboat, screening as part of the Cinematheque’s wonderful ongoing Hitchcock series, is in many ways, one of the esteemed director's most unique films in relation to setting, characterization, and moral tensions between characters.
Set during the height of World War II, the film begins with a single long take, displaying varietal ship wreckage and debris. Shortly after however, a diverse group of both British and American survivors are introduced and seek refuge together on a lifeboat, as it is revealed that the allied liner they were traveling on sank during combat. Because Hitchcock couldn’t make just a simple survival film, a further twist befalls the gang, as the last survivor they pull out of the sea turns out to be a Nazi officer from the enemy German U-boat. Although many of the survivors initially vote to throw the Nazi overboard, it is slowly revealed that the officer is the only person who knows how to survive at sea, essentially forcing our allied protagonists to trust their fate to a German.
Through Lifeboat, it becomes very clear early on that Hitchcock aimed to produce a film that incorporated multiple distinct characterizations to act as a sort of mirror to the relations between the Allied forces amidst the hardships of war. In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock himself notes,
“We wanted to show that at the moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy.”
In many ways, by crafting such a unique cast of characters ranging from Tallulah Bankhead’s austere British reporter to the African American ship steward George (Canada Lee), Hitchcock effectively reveals many underlying social tensions and challenges that affected both civilians and service workers in the time of war. As the film unfolds, the most intriguing aspect revolves around the survivors attempt to gather as one and coexist successfully in order to survive the shipwreck.
One of Hitchcock’s “limited-setting” films (the list also includes Rope and Dial M for Murder), Lifeboat is a sharp and quick film that takes place entirely on the titular object. The camera work is quite astonishing, as almost every scene presents a different perspective or angle. Additionally, the use of lighting and shadow create emphasis on characters and situations, preventing redundancy to the look and pacing of the film. The somewhat surprising choice to eliminate background music entirely from the story produces a surprisingly unique effect as well, elevating dramatic tension and allowing for more detailed characterization. For those of you naysayers wondering how Hitchcock could possibly work a cameo into a film that takes place entirely on a lifeboat, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a certain humorous newspaper clipping.
While Lifeboat may not immediately come to one’s mind when considering the all-time Hitch classics, the film retains excellent stylistic and narrative touches that allows the director to work in a wholly unique setting and story structure. With a relatively short running time of 96 minutes, the film operates on multiple levels, providing the audience with a taut and thrilling story of survival, as well as a revealing look at how a master filmmaker worked with the constraints of this particular material.