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Hitchapalooza 13: Wartime Morality & “Lifeboat” (1944) July 16, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.

Similar to the way Rope or Rear Window are largely confined to limited space, Lifeboat tells its entire story mostly within the lifeboat set adrift from a Nazi torpedoed merchant merchant marine ship. We have a collection of survivors a la Gilligan’s Island – a wealthy industrialist, the ship’s radio officer, a steward, two other crew members, a nurse, a traumatized young mother, a celebrity reporter… and a Nazi survivor from the later-shelled U-boat that sank the other survivor’s ship.

Lifeboat becomes, obviously, a tale of survival, with various interchanges amongst its characters designed to develop their personalities and backstories enough so that we will care about them as well as attempt to predict how they will react to any quandaries that turn up as the plot moves along. It also served as a metaphor for the necessity of allies to pull together during the war – the survivors are a mix of British and Americans – each with different attitudes towards their German “prisoner.” Some want to kill him immediately since it’s war, others feel that such an act would merely be cold blooded murder. We get confusing signals as to Willy the German (Walter Slezak) – he yawns when watching the breakdown of the young mother, but then acts to save an injured survivor by amputating a gangrenous leg.

But can he be trusted? Oh, you know better than that….

Surely if the movie were made after the war, especially now in the age of moral equivalencies, we’d be given some sort of lesson on the humanity of the enemy – the interesting thing here is that Hitchcock does some of that during the war, something that got him some flak from critics, something upon viewing the movie seems totally unjustified – the humanity added to Willy only makes him more formidable as a villain, a message that audiences needed to be reminded of in 1944 when the war was not over and its ending was not a foregone conclusion to be taken for granted.

It’s only when the survivors come together and forget how different they are – when they truly see themselves literally in the same boat – when they can see things for how they truly are. And ironically the one who tells them this is none other than Willy the Nazi. But when they must band together to foil Willy, it’s not exactly a moment to cheer – it’s simply something ugly that they must do, something necessary – what better metaphor for the war?

Lifeboat works amazingly well at building atmosphere – from its opening shots of the smokestack going under and the floating debris to the sense of claustrophobia, abandonment and lingering uncertainty we feel from all of the characters trapped in the boat. This film was also very carefully storyboarded, more so than Hitchcock’s other films, which is saying something – because (at least as far as my supposedly expert eye could tell) no shots are repeated.

But what makes the film so interesting is how it reveals a lot of Hitchcock’s morality. I divide directors into those who like people and those who don’t – you can tell which category they fit into by the sorts of characters they depict and are drawn to. Directors of either category can make good films or bad films too, regardless of your own views on humanity! As much as I prefer the “likes people” directors, I’m still a fan of the films of Alexander Payne I’ve seen, a director who specializes in depicting the inevitable moral failings of flawed people as a way of labelling us all. And I’ve only liked a few films by the prolific Arthur Hiller, who always showers affection onto his protagonists and loves happy endings. So, let’s look at Hitchcock with this dynamic in mind: here’s a guy who made countless movies about crime, murder, psychos, and so forth – yet, he falls into the “likes people” category since his protagonists struggle to do the right thing and, in the end, act nobly and honestly. They are often brave – and when they are not, they at least try to overcome their weaknesses (like in Rear Window or Vertigo). Hitchcock also adds humanity to his villains, making them far more interesting but also giving them likable qualities that make the optimists in us think they might have hope – this element is utilized here in Lifeboat in Slezak’s chararacter, a gutsy move considering there was a war on at the time. Even in the way that our allied survivors see their own moral shortcomings from their reactions to the Nazi, they are still people to be liked in the end, if not admired for the strength and guts they have shown throughout in terms of sheer survival.

I had never seen this one before, either – it was another one of those Hitchcock films that had been skipped over somehow in all the years of movies on tv, college film societies, repertory theaters, and so forth. And it’s a real good one, not to be missed.



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