Lifeboat is a good enough picture, but unfortunately ends up being more interesting as a historical document than a work of art or a piece of entertainment. There are some good performances, it’s an interesting setting, but it doesn’t end up being very emotionally involving or enlightening. Though it’s not a bad film by any means, it certainly doesn’t live up to Hitchcock’s greater pictures.
After a civilian ship is sunk by the Nazis, various social types all end up in one lifeboat. Chief among these are journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) and de facto skipper (at least at first) John Kovac (John Hodiak), who end up in a tediously predictable romance by the end. Things get a bit trickier though, when a Nazi washes up next to the lifeboat. He seems harmless enough, but soon enough he ends up controlling the boat. The occupants of the lifeboat have to band together to defeat the one Nazi, who turns out to be a pretty fearsome match.
There are some upsides to this movie, and one is the interesting treatment of the Nazi character. Though most critics praised the film on its initial release, many objections were made over this very issue. The Nazi, called, funnily enough, Willy (Walter Slezak), is a very tough and resourceful man. He even seems nice, even when he’s in charge. First he deceives everyone on the boat and then he takes control. The rest of the occupants don’t stand a chance against this guy, really. It isn’t until he pushes one of them overboard that the rest of them even make an attempt to rise up against him. Critics back in the day were worried about how this portrayal of American and English uncertainty doing little to combat German efficiency played. This is understandable, but it seems to be that it could be read as more of a cautionary tale rather than the actual state of affairs. The Allies have to band together, because even though the Germans are definitely the bad guys here, they are pretty dang efficient.
The ending of this film is a lot better than the beginning. Without giving too much away, they get rid of Willy and then another Nazi washes up, testing the resolve of the rest of the people in the boat. I won’t say how it works out, but it’s interesting to see events replay themselves here. Don’t worry, it doesn’t get repetitive because the second time around only lasts a few minutes at the end. Whereas it takes a while for the film to get started because they have to establish all the characters (who really aren’t all that interesting, with a few exceptions), and drags at points in the middle because the passengers are all unsure of what to do so they just languish away for a while, things always do pick up and definitely pick up by the end.
Having the entire film take place on a tiny little lifeboat in the middle of the ocean puts a lot of focus on the actors. With the exception of Bankhead and William Bendix, who plays Gus Smith, a sailor who has to get his leg amputated, these characters and actors are either uninteresting or downright annoying, in the case of Kovac. I think the film would have worked better with less people; there are about ten characters on the boat and they all blend together. The cast should have been trimmed down, and even though the setting is obviously minimalist, the cast should have been more on the side of quality than quantity than it was.
So there were some good things and there were some bad things about Lifeboat. I really would like to say I enjoyed this film more than I did, but sadly it just fell short. Hitchcock helps keeps things more visually interesting than one would think with such a limited setting, but he did more with his other limited setting films like Rear Window and Rope. Of course, he had better casts in both of those films to help out. Lifeboat ends up being a lesser Hitchcock, but a few performances are good and the historical context is interesting.
“We’re not like you! You’re made of iron, we’re just flesh and blood! Hungry and thirsty flesh and blood!”
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars
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