Film Spotlight: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was a commercial failure due to controversies of the material which led to limited release and publicity. It recouped its financial losses with respect. It was nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Original Story and Best Director.

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Like Rope, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, Lifeboat was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films with a limited setting—the entire film takes place in a boat. He puts nine survivors in a lifeboat and manages to create pockets of space for intimate conservation.

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He positions and stages his characters like a painting and incorporates the light in the sky or the water flung aboard during a storm to create mood. This is a black and white film that has lots of depth.  One of my favorite shots by Hitchcock occurs when journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) frames Kovak  (John Hodiak) in her camera sights as he swims toward the ship. Hitchcock makes his traditional appearance in the film as an advertisement on the cover of a newspaper.  Very clever.

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The film is unique because it does not have a music score. The lapping of the waves during the 96 minutes of the narrative adds to the anxiety of the survivors of a torpedoed ship during WWII. Aboard the lifeboat are the Allies represented by different characters.  When a survivor comes aboard and they discover it is the German captain of the ship which torpedoed and sank their ship, the over-arching question arises—what  shall we do with him?

It doesn’t help that the German captain saves a life aboard and is the most qualified to lead the lifeboat to safety.  Should the Allies trust the German? Hitchcock’s “gray” portrayal of the enemy created criticism for which he responded he always created his villains with some likeable quality to make it harder for the protagonist to overcome his adversary.  All humans, after all, have redeeming qualities.

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I was surprised how easy it was to get swept away with the dialogue. It had the feel of a play to it. Based on a novella written by John Steinbeck, who sold the rights to Hitchcock, after its release with the favorable portrayal of the German captain, Steinbeck requested dissociation with the film.

The acting is fantastic. The mini-stories of the survivors help keep your interest. There were interesting plot twists and surprises throughout the film to keep you inside the lifeboat and be glad you were there.

I loved it; I recommend this an underrated Hitchcock classic.

31 thoughts on “Film Spotlight: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

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    1. Thanks! I finally got around to watching it. My favorites of Hitch’s so far are still Notorious and North by Northwest–the staples. I’ve seen them 10x a piece! About time I expanded my repertoire 🙂

      1. Those are both good choices : ) and two of my favorites. Speaking of staples, of course, there’s Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. I also like Suspicion, Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Dial M For Murder, The Birds, To Catch a Thief, Strangers on a Train, Spellbound, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Lady Vanishes, The Lodger. I thought that both The Trouble With Harry and Shadow of a Doubt were both pretty slow and drawn out.

  1. Great review, Cindy!

    I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of this one, but I like Hitchcock (who doesn’t) and I once saw a local Fringe Festival play that must have used this (or Steinbeck’s story) as inspiration, all of which means my interest is piqued. This is officially hitting my ever expanding list of must see movies.

    1. Hi ya, James, thank you 🙂
      I’m glad! I’ve seen many of his but this one escaped me. I was surprised how captivating and flirty it was at times.Tallulah Bankhead was feisty and fun to watch.

  2. Oooh, I actually have this dvd on loan from a friend but it’s been sitting on my shelf. I better get to it real soon, esp. as you vouch for this. Nice one Cindy!

    1. Oh, excellent! I hope you like it as much as I. I loved the script and the story line. Watch out for Tallulah Bankhead, a flirt, intelligent, strong, abrasive. She has a lot of Bette Davis in her. 😉

      1. I’ve only seen one Bette Davis film, All About Eve, but I really like her, she’s got spunk! Will watch for Tallulah Bankhead for sure, boy what a fabulous name!

  3. Thank you for bringing this film to people’s attention. It is one of my favorite Hitchcock films because, I think, I’m a sucker for simple, one location stories and this film perfectly encapsulates the qualities of single location stories in cinema. It’s great to see an early Hitchcock film that doesn’t over-style itself and which arrives before his stardom in Hollywood. Yes, Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock and the usual classics (Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo) rank higher than Lifeboat for me personally but this is definitely one of his best pieces of work. That Hitchcock can keep you on the edge of your seat based on a group of people talking on a boat that’s going nowhere shows the genius of the man.

    1. Hi Dan Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. I couldn’t get over how strong the script was to create suspense and unique characters and to utilize the setting to create mood or action was difficult; yes, I thought that harder than his “chestnut” masterpieces like Psycho or Vertigo. What a sensibility! Did you like Hitch as much as I?

  4. This is such a wonderful post! “Lifeboat” deserves more recognition. It is among a handful of Hitchcock films that employ little to no music. Did you know that John Steinbeck actually wrote the novella for this production at Hitchcock’s request. Hitchcock wanted to make a film set in a lifeboat. It was my understanding that the novella was never published, but I could be wrong about this point. If you do not mind, I am going to tweet this and share it on my Facebook page. 🙂

    1. Well, I’m quite flattered! Yes, please share. About John Steinbeck, he wrote the novella and sold the rights to Hitch. After it was made and the German portrayed in a postive light, he wanted his affiliation with the film removed.

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