Lifeboat, the first of Hitchcock’s limited-setting pictures, follows the story of British and US civilians, merchant marines and service members in the aftermath of a battle that sees the sinking of their boat and a German U-Boat. When a German man Willi (Walter Slezak) is also rescued, the tension on the boat increases and coping with the harsh environment and the claustrophobic arrangement takes its toll. Pretty soon suspicion and accusations take the place of compassion and reasoning, with a plot that keeps the audience guessing way beyond the final scene.
Released towards the end of World War II, the film was shrouded in controversy due to the seemingly fair portrayal of a German man who turns out to be a Nazi soldier. This was enough to make the studio give it only a limited release – a surprise given that Rebecca, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt had all been box office successes in the immediately preceding years. Furthermore, John Steinbeck (who wrote the original novel) distanced himself from the adaptation, unhappy with the way Hitchcock had dealt with his work.
It is perhaps only years later that we can appreciate this film for what it is – a good film heavily influenced by the times and heaped with elements of propaganda. In that sense it’s as much a film as it is a historical document. In a way, all cinema is the same.
Lifeboat isn’t amazing, certainly not one of Hitchcock’s finest. I had hoped that the lack of popularity was because of the controversy surrounding its release, but in truth it’s probably because it just doesn’t pack as many punches as the likes of Vertigo and Psycho. It’s worth watching out of interest and worth buying the Masters of Cinema release for the detailed bonus features and two additional little-seen Hitchcock shorts Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, though these are more for the avid fans, even more so than the main feature. It’s worth watching, but not as a Hitchcock starting point.
Lifeboat is available on Masters of Cinema and SteelBook Blu-ray now.