Alfred Hitchcock Sails in “Lifeboat”

6 09 2010

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In “Lifeboat,” Alfred Hitchcock presents a wartime parable that pits the essential good nature of ordinary people against a single, sly enemy. Released by 20th Century Fox in 1944, the film is set in the midst of World War II, entirely in a crowded lifeboat.

The film opens just after a Navy ship has been torpedoed by a German U-boat, with Tallulah Bankhead, as wealthy writer and photographer Connie Porter, sitting alone in the lifeboat as wreckage floats by. She’s soon joined by several workers from the ship, including William Bendix (“Gus”), John Hodiak (“Kovak”), Canada Lee (“Joe”), Hume Cronyn (“Garrett”) and Mary Anderson (“Alice”), as well as wealthy industrialist Charles Rittenhouse, played by Henry Hull. Another young woman and her baby join the group as well, but she is too shocked to realize that the baby is dead.

The final guest on the lifeboat is a member of the U-boat crew who seems to speak only German, played by Walter Slezak. His arrival sparks a heated debate among the rest of the group, with Hodiak insisting that they throw him overboard to drown. Cooler heads prevail, with Rittenhouse making the argument that the German, Willi, should be treated as a prisoner of war.

Rittenhouse takes command of the boat, but lacking nautical expertise, he relies on the others to help him reach the decision to make for Bermuda. Through Connie, who speaks German, Willi says the course they’ve chosen is wrong, but no one believes him. Gus, meanwhile, has his wounded leg examined by Alice, a nurse, who cleans up his wound. Everyone is assigned jobs, and they construct a mast to help them reach their goal.

After realizing that her baby is dead, the young woman slips out of the boat in the middle of the night and is never seen again. The tension continues to increase as it becomes clear that Gus’s leg is gangrenous. Claiming to be a former surgeon, Willi offers to amputate it. The operation takes everyone’s efforts, leaving Garrett alone to keep the boat steady in an increasingly rough sea.

A storm robs the survivors of their supplies, and things go from bad to worse. Kovac takes over as de facto leader for Rittenhouse, but Willi undermines his new role. The survivors learn in quick succession that Willi was the captain of the U-boat, that he speaks English, and that he was hiding a working compass. But after the storm, and after so much time going in the wrong direction, their chances of reaching Bermuda are slim, and so they go along with Willi’s scheme to rendezvous with a German supply ship.

Now free to speak English, Willi continues to manipulate the crew, watching and smiling as they bicker among themselves. Somehow, while they collapse in the heat, Willi rows endlessly. Only Gus, half hallucinating, is conscious enough to see Willi sipping from a water bottle. He begs Willi for a drink, but the threat of being discovered is too great, so Willi pushes Gus overboard.

The others wake up and see that Gus is gone; on questioning Willi they notice that he’s sweating, and find his water bottle, which immediately breaks. In a fury, the remaining survivors throw Willi overboard to die.

The survivors come up with a scheme to catch fish, using Connie’s diamond bracelet, but as they make a catch, Joe spots the German boat. Just as they’re about to be captured, the boat is sunk by an Allied vessel. As the friendly ship steams toward them, a hand reaches into the lifeboat. It’s a young German sailor from the supply ship, and as the survivors start to discuss what to do with him, he pulls a pistol on them. Kovac takes the gun away, and they await their rescue.

Hitchcock took a lot of criticism for “Lifeboat” for the portrayal of the German captain as smart and driven. While the others bicker, he conceives and enacts a plan, keeping his strengths and his scheme hidden. As Hitchcock explains in the quote above, he wanted to show that the Allies needed to pull together. This might have been a better message in 1942, when Hitchcock first conceived of “Lifeboat,” or in a more metaphorical way, as in the scene with the circus freaks from “Saboteur.” But by 1944, tolerance for criticism of the Allies’ efforts against the Axis was gone, and so Fox was pressured to keep publicity for “Lifeboat” to a minimum, diminishing its chances for success.

From the basic concept by Hitchcock, “Lifeboat” was shaped into a novella by John Steinbeck, in the style of “The Moon is Down.” Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling changed the original story enough that, combined with the criticism of the treatment of the German captain, Steinbeck distanced himself from the project. (It didn’t help that Steinbeck was already considered a radical in some circles for works like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “In Dubious Battle.”) The novella was never published.

“Lifeboat” is a gripping drama, and the performances by Bankhead, Slezak and Bendix are all strong. The technical achievement of setting the entire film in the boat is extraordinary, and was only possible due to extensive planning and storyboarding.

It’s also worth mentioning that “Lifeboat” contained Hitch’s trickiest cameo appearance. By now, the cameos had become a tradition, but in this case there were no opportunities to walk through a scene. Hitch considered floating by the lifeboat as a corpse, but didn’t like the idea of getting in the water. Instead, since he had recently lost a great deal of weight, he appeared in a “before and after” weight loss ad in a newspaper.

Next, we’ll look at “Spellbound,” a 1945 film that teams Hitchcock with yet another famous collaborator, artist Salvador Dali.


Alfred Hitchcock Goes to War

3 09 2010

As World War II wore on, a few members of the British film community began to openly criticize Alfred Hitchcock for his move to Hollywood, saying that he had deserted his nation. Of course, when Hitchcock came to the U.S. in 1940, the potential duration of the war was not very clear, and the blitz of London had not yet happened. Still, their words undoubtedly stung Hitchcock, who was in fact torn between his loyalty to England and to his family still living there and his new roots and responsibilities in Hollywood.

In 1944, Hitchcock stole out of the U.S. and travelled to England to make his own contribution to the war effort in the form of propaganda films. The two that are readily seen each run about half an hour; they were made in London, written or cowritten by Angus McPhail, who would work on several other Hitchcock projects. They focused on the French Resistance movement, and were filmed in French with members of the Molieres Players. Both are available for download from

“Bon Voyage,” the slightly shorter of the two featurettes, concerns a young RAF officer and his escape with a fellow flier named Godowski from behind enemy lines in France. The officer tells his story to his superior on his arrival back in London, explaining how his friend arranged everything, from a rendezvous with members of the French Resistance to the final flight out of France, only to find out at the end that there was only room for one on the transport. The RAF officer wins the seat in a game of dice, and Godowski asks only that he deliver an envelope in London.

Of course, Godowski is himself a member of the Gestapo who used the pilot to flush out members of the Resistance and deliver a communique to another spy in London. The RAF pilot doesn’t believe it when his commanding officer explains the situation, but as the older man fills in the blanks, the young pilot realizes the truth — and is shocked to think that his actions doomed the attractive young woman of the Resistance who helped him escape.

“Aventure Malgache” is set in Madagascar, then a French colony that had been taken over by Germany. The story begins with a trio of actors getting ready to perform a play – but one of them is complaining that he can’t get a handle on his character. His friend, Clarousse, tells him a story of a similar person, hoping to provide some insight into the role. Clarousse had been the leader of the French Resistance in Madascar, and the person he describes was a member of the Vichy French in Madagascar called Michel. Michel was determined to stop members of the Resistance from escaping to freedom, and took underhanded steps to stop it, such as pretending to be a defense lawyer to win Clarousse’s confidence. Clarousse was not taken in, but managed to keep up communication while in prison, enabling many to make their way off the island.

The portrait of Michel, and the valor of the Resistance, builds up through “Aventure Malgache” until Clarousse escapes as well. He first becomes a pirate radio announce, then an actor, putting on stage plays about the Vichy’s treacherous ways. His friend, who needed guidance in his acting, is offended that Clarousse thinks he’s a natural to play Michel, and the film ends as they stop short of breaking into a fight, only to realize how foolish they’re being.

Legend has it that on review, the British Ministry of Information deemed these films too bluntly realistic to be released.

Hitchcock played a part in two other propaganda films as well. One is a 1944 war bond fundraiser called “The Fighting Generation,” starring Jennifer Jones, the actress with whom David O. Selznick was obsessed. Although the film reportedly still exists, it has been locked away in the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles since the end of World War II. However, we do have a few images from it, and you can read more about the film here.

The fourth and final propaganda film Hitchcock worked on is “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” released in 1945 and cowritten by Ben Hecht. Hitchcock is one of four directors to work on the 15-minute film, which spotlighted the Dumbarton Oaks conference that laid the groundwork for the United Nations. Whether this film still exists in any form is uncertain; I have not been able to find a trace of it beyond records at the Hitchcock wiki page or at

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