Thursday, March 1, 2012

#563. Lifeboat (1944)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak

Tag line: "What happens when six men and three women are alone in an open boat ?"

Trivia:  John Steinbeck wrote the story at Alfred Hitchcock's request

The entirety of Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 film Lifeboat takes place on a single set: a lifeboat, floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Setting aside (albeit temporarily) his reputation as the "Master of Suspense", Hitchcock crafted a dramatic, character-driven tale of love and deception on the high seas.

And in my opinion, he did a damn fine job of it! 

A freighter has just been torpedoed by a German U-boat, and is sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Constance “Connie” Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a well-dressed journalist and former passenger on the freighter, sits alone in a lifeboat, surrounded by her luggage. 

She is soon joined by a few more survivors, including crewmen John Kovac (John Hodiak) and Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn); an injured crewman named Gus (William Bendix); nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson); wealthy socialite C.J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); and assistant steward Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), who saved a woman (Heather Angel) from drowning. Rounding out the “passengers” on this lifeboat is Willy (Walter Slezak), an enemy sailor from the German sub, which was also destroyed in the attack. 

The lifeboat drifts for days, and hope is running out almost as quickly as the food and water. What’s more, Willy, who is actually a Nazi naval officer, is hiding a compass, which he uses to alter the boat's course so it will rendezvous with a German supply ship in the area. 

But that’s not the only secret Willy is keeping from his fellow survivors, all of whom are in more danger than they realize. 

Lifeboat has its share of intrigue, most involving Willy, who, under the pretense of guiding the small boat to safety, is attempting to lead his fellow survivors into a trap, which will earn them a one-way ticket to a German POW camp. But what makes Lifeboat such a rewarding film are the relationships that develop between its characters, as well as the way each responds in a crisis, responses that will change as morality and decency slowly give way to thirst and starvation. 

When Willy is first fished out of the water, Kovac wants to toss him right back in and leave him to die. Connie and a few others intercede, convincing the hot-headed Kovac that Willy is now a prisoner-of-war, and should be treated as the law dictates. It initially looks as if they made the right decision, especially when Willy takes charge and performs the amputation of Gus’s leg, which had become gangrenous. But as time wears on, and certain facts about their German shipmate are brought to light, even the most mild-mannered will lash out in a way they would have otherwise never thought possible. 

In the long history of motion pictures, many films have demonstrated mankind’s courage in the face of adversity, and the ability to sustain humanity, regardless of the conditions. This film takes a slightly different approach.  Serving as an analogy of WWII itself, Lifeboat shows what can happen when decent people in a desperate situation are pushed to the limit, and decide they're not going to take it anymore.

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