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LIFEBOAT, 1944
Movie Review

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LIFEBOAT, 1944
Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix
Review by Steven Painter



SYNOPSIS:

Several survivors of a torpedoed ship find themselves in the same boat with one of the men who sunk it.

Nominated for 3 OSCARS:

Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: Glen MacWilliams

Best Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Best Writing, Original Story: John Steinbeck

REVIEW:

One of the more interesting Alfred Hitchcock movies, although not because of the story, is Lifeboat (1944). The movie is set during World War II and is aptly named. What makes this movie different is that the camera never leaves the lifeboat and all shots are subjective. That is, there are no shots of what a character sees. It is the only movie, to my knowledge, that features these two techniques.

Lifeboatís story is nothing spectacular, which is odd considering John Steinbeck wrote the original story for the movie. It basically concerns a group of Allies who have had their freighter torpedoed by a German submarine. Their only chance of survival is the lifeboat that they have found.

Our crew members are a journalist, Connie, who is played by Tallulah Bankhead; John Kovac, who is a left-wing crewmember; Gus Smith, a seaman who has a serious leg injury; Stanley, the shipís radio operator; Joe Spencer, the shipís steward; Alice, a nurse; Charles Rittenhouse, a millionaire businessman; and Mrs. Higgins, an Englishwoman carrying her dead child.

This mangy group has trouble deciding what should happen on the lifeboat. They argue about what needs to be kept on-board and which direction safety is. They debate about who should lead and how to conserve rations and water. Things do not get any easier when German U-boat survivor, Willi, played by Walter Slezak, is saved from drowning.

Willi happens to be an expert seaman. He takes over as the main person behind the oars and even dictates what should be done on the boat. The Allies do not like this. Neither did audiences at the time. It was not popular to portray Germans in a good light during World War II. Hitchcock caught some flack for doing this, but it only gets worse for him and Willi.

Besides being an expert seaman, Willi seems to be the only one prepared for the lifeboat trip. He has a compass and a canteen with extra water in it. He uses the compass to direct him toward a German supply ship. He uses the extra water to demonstrate the supposed superiority of his race as he never takes a break.

Starvation and dehydration set in for the crew of the lifeboat. Gangrene appears in Gusí injured leg. Willi also happens to be a surgeon and, despite the wishes of many of the Allies in the boat, he cuts off Gusí leg to save his life. Gus is in tremendous pain, as there was no anesthetic, but he survives.

He doesnít live for long though. He discovers that Willi has been pointing the boat away from where they are supposed to be going. He also finds out the canteen Willi has. This does not please Willi at all and he throws Gus overboard while the others are sleeping. When everyone wakes up in the morning Willi tells them Gus had committed suicide because of the pain.

Finally the Allies figure out that Willi isnít exactly what he says he is. First Willi said he couldnít speak English, then they find out he speaks perfect English. Willi told them that he was following the course they told him to, but they find out he is heading to the supply ship. They also find his canteen. This doesnít sit well with the crew and they brutally beat the German and then toss him over. This infuriated critics and audiences. They felt that Hitchcock had given the German a heroís death. He had been beaten by savages, the critics believed, so audiences could be sympathetic to him.

The p.r. for Hitchcock on this movie was not good. He had to weather the storm of poor public opinion, but the angry audiences and critics did not prevent him from making other movies -- obviously. Today it seems like the beating of Willi is a bit over the top, but not completely unjustified. What would you do if you discovered someone was hording extra water when you were dehydrated?

The movie ends with the German supply ship Willi was leading the lifeboat crew to, being torpedoed by an Allied vessel, which comes to save the survivors of the lifeboat.

Lifeboat is a good study for cinematographers and directors. Probably not the best film to watch if you are a screenwriter. It does present a picture of feelings regarding enemies in the United States during the 1940s. That might interest others to watch.

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