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  Lifeboat Water Water Everywhere
Year: 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee
Genre: Thriller, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: The Second World War is at its height, with Nazi and Allied ships taking shots at each other in the Atlantic. One of those Allied ships has been torpedoed by a German U-boat, although it managed to fire off a few missiles at its attacker before it went down with all hands, effectively destroying it in the process. There are not many survivors, but among them is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) who took to a lifeboat resplendent in her furs and jewelry and as much of her personal effects as she could muster, so when she pulls a sailor out of the drink, he cannot believe her...

During World War II in Hollywood, many high profile directors contributed to the war effort by making propaganda movies, and Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most enthusiastic for this cause. Lifeboat was the last of his three works to that end, not including documentary shorts, and was a success at the time, although with hindsight the depiction of the German character as being as devious as he is might have worked for building up that nation as one to be feared and conquered during the conflict, but may not sit as well with some modern viewers. As ever, of course, regarding such devices is a matter of placing this type of film in its historical context.

Returning to the big screen after more than a decade in the theatre was Tallulah Bankhead in a role tailor-made for her talents, as Hitch wanted a distinctive lead character who audiences would be taken aback by the thought of someone this refined being landed in such a down and dirty fight for life. But then, he was very careful with all his casting, as each actor brought notable looks and voices to the drama; as far as the way they sounded went, Lifeboat would have made a very decent radio play, especially as the whole story took place on one set. Other films which use that approach can seem confined and airless, but here the effect was surprisngly authentic.

Working from a story by John Steinbeck, although the initial idea was Hitchcock's own, the whole affair was exceedingly well-judged, apart from one aspect, which was the message of the piece. Ostensibly a plea for the Allied countries to put aside their differences in the fight against a common enemy, in practice with so many different points of view in the representation of the people on the lifeboat, too often the theme was lost in a yammering of diverse opinions where the survivors start to bicker as their situation grows more desperate. It doesn't help that one of those they pull out of the ocean is none other than the Captain (Walter Slezak) of the boat that got them into this mess in the first place.

Apparently unable to speak English, Willy, as the others name him, is far more cunning than they give him credit for, and as the film draws into its final half hour, we can perceive he has been running intellectual rings around his fellow passengers. Naturally all this fed into the paranoia that you couldn't trust a Nazi, and it all ends with the others debased in their attempt to establish themselves as the winning side, as if to say to the audience that they would have to commit acts that they found morally abhorrent, but as it was all for the greater good then they would be forgiven. There's some tough lessons in Lifeboat which makes it hard to enjoy as escapism, which it was not intended to be, and it raises uncomfortable questions about what the correct way to behave in a state of war should be. But then, it's canny enough to admit that nothing in war is simple, and nor should it be. Music by Hugo Friedhofer.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Alfred Hitchcock  (1899 - 1980)

Hugely influential British director, renowned as "The Master of Suspense" for his way with thrillers. His first recognisably Hitchcockian film was The Lodger, but it was only until Blackmail (the first British sound film) that he found his calling. His other 1930s films included a few classics: Number Seventeen, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.

Producer David O. Selznick gave Hitchcock his break in Hollywood directing Rebecca, and he never looked back. In the forties were Suspicion, thinly veiled propaganda Foreign Correspondent, the single set Lifeboat, Saboteur, Notorious, Spellbound (with the Salvador Dali dream sequence), Shadow of a Doubt (his personal favourite) and technician's nightmare Rope.

In the fifties were darkly amusing Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Dial M for Murder (in 3-D), rare comedy The Trouble with Harry, Rear Window, a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief, the uncharacteristic in style The Wrong Man, the sickly Vertigo, and his quintessential chase movie, North By Northwest. He also had a successful television series around this time, which he introduced, making his distinctive face and voice as recognisable as his name.

The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.

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