Thursday, June 6, 2013
(January 1944, U.S.)
LIFEBOAT may be the closest Alfred Hitchcock ever came to making a black and white combat war film. It's also one of several films that he made featuring a very limited setting. Others included ROPE (1948), DIAL M FOR MURDER and REAR WINDOW (both 1954). LIFEBOAT begins with wartime destruction at sea between a civilian ship and a German U-Boat and immediately sets the stage (or the sea) for the story that will take place only in a single lifeboat that slowly fills up with assorted characters.
The staging of the lifeboat begins simply enough with just one passenger; a very stylish, well-dressed and rather famous wartime columnist Connie Porter (played by Tallulah Bankhead). Well dressed is a key point in her physical character because one look at her with her well-set hair and fur coat and you immediately sense that this woman does not belong on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea. She actually appears amused at the thought of her potential strandedness and isolation, even taking full advantage of the movie camera she has with her to get some excellent footage of the entire event. A simple beginning doesn't last, though, because where there's one survivor of an exploding ship, there's bound to be another and another until we are faced with several British and U.S. civilians stuck together in a restricted lifeboat in the middle of the North Atlantic. A turning point occurs when one of the people they rescue is a German survivor of the U-Boat that sunk their ship. Wartime patriotism and anger demands that the German (the Nazi enemy!) be thrown overboard. However, cooler heads prevail and he's allowed to remain on board. The viewer is now left to question whether the German (who "appears" to not speak any English) will join forces with these people to survive or will he ultimately lead them into the jaws of other Germans at sea. As time progresses, we follow the lifeboat's inhabitants as they attempt to organize their rations, set a course for Bermuda, and coexist while trying to survive. The characters may start out being good-natured, cooperative, and optimistic about rescue but they inevitably descend into desperation, dehydration, and total frustration with each other. The back stories of the characters are examined, and divisions of race, religion, sex, class, and nationality are finally brought to the surface.
Through all of this drama, one constant remains; the German is very likely not to be trusted because enemies of war do not change their intentions. Suspicions are correct because the innocent survivors are subsequently spotted by the German supply ship to which the enemy on board had been steering them all along. Before a launch can pick them up, both the supply ship and rescue-lifeboat are sunk by an Allied warship. Subsequently, once again, a frightened young German seaman is pulled aboard the lifeboat. This one, however, is less of a mystery because he immediately pulls a gun on the boat occupants but is surprised and disarmed. He asks in German, "Aren't you going to kill me?". The film ends with surviving passengers arguing about keeping the new German sailor aboard or throwing him off to drown as they await the Allied vessel to rescue them, just as they had in the beginning. It would seem that even after the ongoing ordeal of struggle and survival, human doubts and rationals don't change very much.
It's important to pay attention to and appreciate the concept of human decay in this film. When we first meet our survivors, they're still filled with reasonable strength and hope of deliverance. Time, fear, stress, frustration and the harsh elements of the sea are slowly transforming these otherwise good people into potential savages, both in physical appearance and their ideas of their own humanity. Only when rescue finally seems a reality are they almost instantly transformed back into a small fraction of the people they were at the beginning of the film. Their drama is not even overshadowed by much of a background musical score in this film. We're meant to be on that lifeboat with them, through the decay and survival that, somehow, only the great Alfred Hitchcock could show us.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Gus Smith: "A guy can't help being a German if he's born a German, can he?"
John Kovac: "Neither can a snake help being a rattlesnake if he's born a rattlesnake! That don't make him a nightingale! Get him out of here!"