Classics Worth Re-Catching: Lifeboat (1944)

August 18, 2016
With the minimalist thriller, The Shallows, in cinemas this week, we set sail with another ingenious ocean-set nail-biter that makes the absolute most of its limited narrative resources.

Unlike many contemporary filmmakers, the great Alfred Hitchcock preferred filming on studio sets where he could control everything, and in Lifeboat, he created the ultimate challenge – to film entirely on one set: a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic during WW2. A stunning precursor to his later single setting films, Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954), Lifeboat (which was written by literary figurehead, John Steinbeck, along with Jo Swerling) unassailably proves that you can do a lot with limited resources if you’re a cinematic genius.

After their ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, eight people – journalist/adventuress, Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead); millionaire, Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson); seamen John Kovac, Gus Smith and Stanley Green (John Hodiak, William Bendix, Hume Cronyn); African-American steward, George Spencer (Canada Lee); and the Captain of the U-boat, Willy (Walter Slezak) – find themselves in a lifeboat. As their hope for rescue recedes, the tensions increase among the castaways, especially with regard to their German ship mate. “I like stories with lots of psychology,” Hitchcock once said, and that’s never been more obvious than in Lifeboat.

It is a credit to Hitchcock’s superior skill as a director that Lifeboat is never dull, and the pace never lags. While Lifeboat is not one of his best, it is certainly one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films, and it remains an entertaining, thought provoking example of minimalist screen tension. As he would prove again and again, Alfred Hitchcock’s understanding of fear, paranoia, and what makes people tick was beyond reproach. When distilling that to its very essence in Lifeboat, the results are utterly gripping. “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand,” the director once said. “After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced The Big Bad Wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

An obvious forebear to contemporary stripped-back nail-biters like All Is Lost, Buried, Phone Booth, Devil, 127 Hours, Cube, and this week’s The Shallows, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat will have you hanging on for dear life.

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