Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.
Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.
There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.
The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.
One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.
Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.
The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.
Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.
And it sometimes gives the actors great material.
Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.
Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.
More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.
The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.
Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).