Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull, Heather Angel
Written by: Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 01/12/1944

Lifeboat (1944)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All in a Row

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's hard to imagine the mischievous Alfred Hitchcock as someone who would get patriotic and pitch in to the war effort. But he did; he made two war shorts, Bon Voyage (1944) and Aventure malgache (1944), and his Lifeboat is a tightly-wound film whose plot hinges on wartime attitudes.

It's a technical tour-de-force, as a handful of ocean liner passengers gather in the title boat to await rescue. Unfortunately, one of the passengers happens to be the U-Boat captain responsible for sinking the Americans' ship. The catch is that no one can decide whether or not to trust the German, whose naval skills could arguably save their lives, but who could also betray them at any moment.

Sexy, scene-stealing Talulah Bankhead leads the cast as a headstrong newspaper columnist clinging to her worldly possessions. William Bendix also makes an impression as a New Jersey mug with an injured leg. None other than John Steinbeck co-wrote the screenplay.

Without ever leaving the boat, Hitchcock plays psychological tensions against one another, continually ramping up the stakes as food and water run out. But Hitchcock also manages Lifeboat as a visual, cinematic exercise; he avoids repeating the same shots, and though it must have been a nightmare to cut together, the continuity is flawless.

Even though the movie was shot in a water tank on a soundstage, it was far from a smooth production; Hitchcock insisted on shooting the story in sequence, and insisted on the boat being in motion at all times. The actors suffered maladies ranging from seasickness to pneumonia.

It was the only movie Hitchcock ever made at Fox, and it was not one of his more successful efforts, but the Academy took notice of its masterly technical achievements with three Oscar nominations. Hitch received one of his five career Best Director Oscar nods, Steinbeck was nominated for for his screenplay, as was cinematographer Glen MacWilliams.

Even if it's less timeless than some of the master's other works, it's still fascinating as a historical curio, and it's still relentlessly gripping.

Fox Home Video has released this 2005 DVD to make your Hitchcock library that much more complete. It comes with a fascinating making-of featurette and a commentary track by film historian Drew Casper, as well as a photo gallery.

In 2017, Kino Lorber released Lifeboat in a new Blu-ray edition that is worth celebrating. I haven't seen the 2012 "Masters of Cinema" edition, but this one includes a couple of the same extras: a 20-minute making-of featurette and an excerpt of Francois Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock, and it includes the Casper commentary track as well. But it also includes a brand new one by Tim Lucas, plus some trailers. Picture and sound are impressive.

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