Now here’s a film that surprisingly has some remarkable amount of star power behind it. Not only is the story by the author John Steinbeck of all people, it’s also directed by the master of cinema himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Even the cast is rather interesting collection of individuals once you scratch the surface: you have people such as Walter Slezak (who later in his career played Clock King on the Adam West 1966 Batman show), Henry Hull (male lead in Werewolf of London), the sensational and ever scandalous Tallulah Bankhead (a mere brief glance at her steamy Wikipedia article is enough to make one’s spectacles fog up), and Canada Lee, whose adventurous exploits alongside Sidney Poitier during the making of the 1951 film Cry, the Beloved Country (both Lee and Poitier had to claim to be indentured servants to the film’s director, Zoltán Korda, rather than actors in order to get into the country, due to South Africa’s strict enforcement of apartheid) truly proves life is stranger than fiction. With such uncanny group of people working on the picture, is it any wonder that the film ended up becoming a cinema classic?
You do not have to look any further than the basic premise before Lifeboat has you hooked immediately. After a naval battle during the Second World War sees an allied ship being sunk by a German U-boat, the few surviving American and British passengers find themselves in a tricky situation when they have to share their only minuscule lifeboat with one of the very German sailors responsible for sinking their ship. Cue heightened tensions, escalating hostility, vain attempts at working together as a group like civilized people and razor sharp intrigue as the days go by with no rescue vessel in sight and the meager rations that the lifeboat has start to run low. As a story it is a very engrossing examination of survival, prejudice, feebleness of democracy and dangers of mob mentality, all tied together under the boiling cauldron of major psychological and physical stress within the confines of the miniature microcosm that is the lifeboat. It takes a particularly great director to be able to take such a difficult, dialog driven story and successfully turn it into a hotspot for a thrilling drama, captivating suspense and compelling characters, without ever letting the film lose steam or its razor sharp tension, speak nothing of the tasking job to give the film a vibrant look and life when you have to work with the extreme limitations of space and movement due to the small size of the lifeboat that serves as the stage for the entire story.
The acting is all around is very good, but one really has to praise Tallulah Bankhead and her performance in particular. She’s simply marvelous, speak nothing of being a total fox. Her deep, husky voice lends itself well to give her the immediate gravitas and sense of authority on the boat despite being a woman in the 1940s and it’s pretty fun to see how her character evolves throughout the film. The other characters are all relatively well fleshed out, and provide a certain amount of good surprises along the way. There’s also nice tension throughout the film when the people start to clash against one another and the character development that you witness on the silver screen as emotions run high is enormously vivid and powerful, largely thanks to the minimal use of movement, heavy use of dialog and great emphasis on close character interaction. There’s even couple of nice twists sprinkled into the story that help to spice things up considerably whenever the story needs to take a dramatic turn from the tedious misery that is finding oneself adrift on open sea, with no guarantees of survival.
All in all, Lifeboat is a very fine picture and it makes me wonder why you don’t (or at least I can’t recall many occasions) hear it mention as often as some of Hitchcock’s other famous pictures.