Several survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship in World War II find themselves in the same lifeboat with one of the crew members of the U-boat that sank their ship.Several survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship in World War II find themselves in the same lifeboat with one of the crew members of the U-boat that sank their ship.Several survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship in World War II find themselves in the same lifeboat with one of the crew members of the U-boat that sank their ship.
In the case of Lifeboat, it lead to the first in a series of pictures directed by Alfred Hitchcock made entirely in one confined set. Four years later he would make one called Rope, which gave the illusion of being shot in one continuous take. As such there was a constant feel of the artificiality of the process as the director's self-imposed limitations forced him to change angle and focus by moving the camera around. Lifeboat is different, not because Hitch didn't have the level of technical expertise yet, but because it has a far more timely and important story, and he could not afford to turn it into some self-indulgent technical exercise.
What we actually have is Hitch at his most thoughtful and least extravagant. Rather than drawing our attention to the smallness of the space, he makes the drama revolve entirely around the characters. His shot compositions are mostly designed to show only the actors, not the boat. This isn't just done with close-ups, but many cleverly arranged group shots. In acknowledgement of just how much the human brain can take in at once, he might have one character talking, while several others stand around them, not as bits of scenery but as part of the narrative. A good example is Walter Slezak, whom Hitch will place in some innocuous part of the shot, only to have the actor turn his head at some key moment while someone else is speaking, making us suddenly remember him and wonder if perhaps he is listening. While Hitch generally let actors get on with their own job, I am sure such precisely timed and presented bits of business were at his behest.
This is not to say the actors in Lifeboat are mere puppets for the director. Slezak is in fact a brilliant performer, intelligently displaying an air of innocence, with now and then a touch of something deeper. His manner is genuinely ambiguous, which makes it believable for the other characters to be divided in their opinion of him. Tallulah Bankhead seems more or less to be playing herself, or at least the delightfully vibrant persona that she crafted for herself. On dry land she could easily come across as a bit of a fraud, but here in the Lifeboat she personifies the spirit of defiance in the face of it all. From the rest of the cast come solid turns which are distinctive and lively, but never quite going so far as stereotype or overstatement.
The end result is not the most conventional piece of wartime propaganda ever. But while not exactly rousing, it is certainly entertaining. And this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn't busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.
- Nov 8, 2010