LIFEBOAT (1944): “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

LIFEBOAT (1944) – 20th Century Fox – ★★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), John Hodiak (John Kovak),  Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Henry Hull (Charles Rittenhouse, Jr.), Walter Slezak (Captain Willi), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley).

Screenplay by Jo Swerling based on a treatment by John Steinbeck

Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams

Edited by Dorothy Spencer

Music by Hugo W. Friedhofer

Origins:   Although signed to a contract with David O. Selznick, Lifeboat would be the sixth consecutive film that Alfred Hitchcock would make on a loan-out to another studio.  This is the only film that Hitchcock ever made for 20th Century Fox.  It would run over schedule, over budget, and actually lost money on its initial run.   It has been an often overlooked film in the Hitchcock oeuvre that has finally begun to receive the acclaim it deserves in recent years.

The movie has a typical Hitchcock opening, a wordless montage of images that sets the scene perfectly.  First we see smoke emanating from a smokestack.  We then see that the smokestack belongs to a sinking ship.  Finally, various objects from the shipwreck drift through the screen.  First the objects are innocuous:  playing cards, a magazine, etc.  But finally a dead body drifts into screen.  The dead body is face down, and wearing a life vest that identifies him as the crewman of a German U-boat.  Eventually we see a woman alone on a lifeboat.   The woman is Constance Porter, played to perfection by Tallulah Bankhead.  It is no accident that she is introduced alone in the boat.  Constance is the central character in the film, as is the journey her character undertakes.

Eventually we end up with nine survivors on the boat.  They represent different types.  The boat is a microcosm of the world during wartime:  the industrialist, the socialist, the German U-boat survivor, etc.  The main plot line of the movie involves the way the survivors of the shipwreck will treat the German sailor.  Do they keep him alive?  Do they trust his navigational skills?  After all, it was his U-boat that sank their ship in the first place.   As is typical of a Hitchcock film, the audience is given information about the German (Captain Willi, played by Walter Slezak) before the other characters in the film.   When the others finally have this knowledge, what course will they take?  This is the ultimate point that Hitchcock wished to make with Lifeboat.  The Germans were implacable;  they had a sense of purpose, and the only way the Allies would beat them is to put all differences aside and unite with the same sense of purpose.   Lifeboat is more about characterization than it is plot, so I won’t dwell too much on plot specifics.

Each of the characters must undergo a transformation to reach the place where all can work together in unity.  By the film’s final act, the crew have survived a vicious storm together, and the population of the boat has decreased somewhat.  It is Constance that has to discard the most trappings.  This is achieved visually, as her personal belongings are stripped from her one by one throughout the film.  First her camera, her suitcase, her mink coat, her typewriter and ultimately her treasured bracelet are all lost overboard.  Finally stripped of these physical accoutrements representative of her place in society, Constance is left with the only things that really matter, and gives a rallying speech, uniting the members of the boat to work together.

Framing the image:  One of the technical aspects of the movie which most appealed to Hitchcock was the idea of filming an entire movie in a limited setting, and developing different camera set-ups and methods of framing to tell the story.  Throughout this article I have included a few examples of the many ingenious ways that Hitchcock framed the characters on the boat.   He used just about every conceivable set-up possible, without ever leaving the confines of the boat, and not once does the camera work seem artificial, or contrived.  This is a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a technician.  I would venture to say that Hitchcock’s technical achievements on this film surpass the story itself.

Performance:  Although this movie is an ensemble piece, featuring nine people in one small space, Tallulah Bankhead is clearly the focal character.  As Hitchcock said:  The characterization by Tallulah Bankhead dominated the whole film.”   Bankhead was known more as a stage actress, and hadn’t been in any films for a decade when Hitchcock sought her out to be his leading lady.  She is the exact opposite of the “typical” Hitchcock leading lady, the blond, ethereal beauties such as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.  Bankhead is dark haired, passionate and sultry.  And she is absolutely perfect in this movie.  This is far and away the greatest performance of her career on film.

The actor Murray Alper was originally cast in the role of the injured sailor Gus.  Alper had appeared in the small but memorable role of a truck driver in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and Hitch was so pleased with his performance that he offered him this very substantial role.  Unfortunately, Alper could not overcome his seasickness.   The boat was attached to a mechanism that kept it constantly rocking, and after three days of filming Alper was released.  His loss was William Bendix’s gain.   Bendix, an underrated character actor who had a prolific career until his early demise,  gives a career performance as Gus.  Bendix’s Gus is so likable, his portrayal so heartfelt.  He represents every American who didn’t make it home.

John Hodiak also gives the performance of a lifetime as Kovak.  Hodiak died at only 41 years of age, and never had another performance of this magnitude.  All of the other cast members give solid performances.   Walter Slezak is fantastic in the role of the German.  Hume Cronyn, an always dependable character actor,  is solid, even if his English accent is questionable.

This may be the most beautifully framed scene in the movie. Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn are placed at different depths from the camera for this moment of emotional honesty, where they appear to be facing each other, even as they gaze past each other into the distance.

Source material:  Alfred Hitchcock hired John Steinbeck to pen an original treatment that would become the basis for the film.  Hitchcock had just had great luck working with a couple of established American authors (Dorothy Parker had helped pen the screenplay for Saboteur, and Thornton Wilder had co-written Shadow of a Doubt.)  His relationship with Steinbeck would not be so rosy.   Hitchcock describes the writing process for this film as follows:  I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks.  I didn’t care for what he had written at all….I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra.  When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless.  So I went over it again.

Steinbeck’s original treatment, or novella, has never been published, despite many entreaties to the Steinbeck estate to do so.  Steinbeck was so disgusted with the final product that he asked for his name to be removed from the film.  That was not to be.  20th Century Fox felt that his name might add some prestige, and refused to remove it.  Funnily enough, Steinbeck would receive an Oscar nomination for best original story.  One of the things that most troubled Steinbeck was Joe Spencer, whose characterization in the film was a far cry from the way Steinbeck had written him.

Canada Lee, actor:  When this film was released, there were virtually no significant roles given to people of color in Hollywood. If one looks at the roles of African American actors in Hitchcock movies, one sees the repeated stereotypes typical of the time:  railroad porters and servants.   There is even an unfortunate use of blackface in one of Hitchcock’s otherwise great British thrillers, Young and Innocent. Canada Lee’s character Joe Spencer is the first person of color to have a major speaking role in a Hitchcock movie.  And almost the only one, ever.  We would have to wait another quarter century (!), until Topaz and the amazing Harlem sequence featuring Roscoe Lee Browne.

Canada Lee was a pioneer for people of color on the screen.  He was a brilliant actor, whose talent transcended the stereotypes that he was often handed to play. Lee began his professional life as a boxer, but a detached retina forced him to seek out a new career.  Lee became a stage actor, who achieved acclaim on Broadway in the role of  Banquo in the Orson Welles’ directed all-black MacBeth in 1936.  Welles and Lee would reunite in 1941, to even further acclaim, in a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.  


Canada Lee as Banquo, in Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s production of MacBeth

Lee’s character Joe, as written in Lifeboat, is just another stereotype, beginning with his name.  Henry Hull’s wealthy industrial capitalist Rittenhouse keeps calling him “George.”  This was a term in common use at the time for railroad porters, no different than “boy” or “son”, and just as demeaning.  Joe finally corrects him, letting Rittenhouse and the audience know that he has a name, and an identity.  The screenplay pens Joe as a reformed pickpocket.  Why does the only person of color need to have a criminal background?  He is also the only one who espouses any spirituality, and he has a recorder tied around his neck, upon which he plays plaintive tunes in appropriate moments.  Lee elevates this character far above the written word, however.  He consciously made sure that there was never an element of the subservient black man in his roles.  He speaks with brilliant, restrained elocution, and a calm dignity that propels his character to a moral high ground.  In many ways, Joe is the only person on the lifeboat who maintains a moral equanimity throughout the movie.  Sidney Poitier would later cite Canada Lee as a major influence on him, someone who helped blaze a trail that would ultimately lead Poitier to the podium as a recipient of the first Best Acting Oscar for a man of color.

Academy Awards:  Lifeboat received three Oscar nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, John Steinbeck for best original story, and Glen MacWilliams for best black and white cinematography.  It lost in all categories.

Recurring players:  Heather Angel had appeared as Ethel the maid in Suspicion.  And Hume Cronyn had played neighbor Herbie Hawkins in Shadow of a Doubt.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s ingenious cameo comes just after the 25-minute mark.  Here is Hitch’s description:  That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up.  Usually I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean.  I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink…Finally, I hit on a good idea.  At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds.  So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for “before” and “after” pictures.  These photographs were used in a newspaper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them – and me- when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat.  The role was a great hit.  I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how the could get Reduco.

What Hume said:  In A Terrible Liar, Hume Cronyn’s memoir, he has some harsh words for co-star Tallulah Bankhead:  She was famous as a young woman for her looks, her scandalous behavior and above all for that low-pitched, throaty voice.  One of my reservations about the lady was that the voice was heard all too often.  She was a compulsive talker with a reputation for wit.  My own estimation was that this was based on the law of averages:  anyone who talked as much as Tallulah did was bound eventually to say something witty.  Unfortunately, I saw more of the termigant than the wit.

Ouch!  Then, three pages later, perhaps feeling guilty, Cronyn praises Bankhead’s professionalism:  She was on time, she knew her lines, she took Hitch’s direction beautifully, she always turned up to play a scene with the rest of us even though she herself might be off camera, and I never heard her complain about the working conditions.  These were pretty rough…we were frequently wet, cold, and covered with diesel oil.

About the film in general, Hume said it was an uncomfortable one to make, physically uncomfortable, because of its nature.  Nine of us huddled together in a lifeboat on frequently stormy seas for the best part of three months.  To call it close quarters would be an understatement.  No part of the film was actually shot at sea.  It was made either in the studio or in a tank on the back lot at Fox…The film posed technical difficulties that were meat and drink to Hitch.  He rejoiced in solving them.

Another fantastic framing of the lifeboat survivors.

What Hitch said:  In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:  We wanted to show that at that 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, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination…Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit elsewhere, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.  I never let that camera get outside the boat, and there was no music at all; it was very rigorous.  

Definitive edition:  Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in March of 2017 as part of their Studio Classics line.  The blu-ray has very solid picture and sound;  not perfect, but definitely the best it has looked and sounded in a long time.  It includes two audio commentaries:  one with film historian Tim Lucas,  the other with Drew Casper, who holds the title of Hitchcock professor for the study of American film at USC.  Lucas’ commentary is full of interesting story about the making of the film.  I must confess that Drew Casper’s dry professorial air, and very distinct locution get on my nerves, although one can definitely learn from listening to his commentary.  Also included is a twenty minute making-of documentary, an eleven minute audio clip from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a blu-ray re-release trailer.

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