When I saw the Out to Sea Blogathon the first thing that came to mind was Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The reason for this is that when dealing with seafaring narratives you are normally are left with few options of how to approach it in terms of the kind of story being told.
As per usual Hitchcock worked from a concept first conceived in prose. In this case a story by John Steinbeck. Shaping into cinematic story proved a daunting task in the scripting stage, as Hitch told Truffaut in their now-legendary interview series:
I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his screenplay was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was complete and was ready to shoot, I discovered the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give dramatic form to each of the sequences.
This kind of revolving door of writers was not unusual then, nor is it unusual now; nor is a director’s pass of the script. This kind of revisionary writing is what many directors do in lieu of writing their own scripts start-to-finish—Spielberg would be a modern day example. Much of Hitchcock’s contribution can be seen in Constance Porter’s (Tallulah Bankhead) arc. However, there are other touches that make this work special, one of under-appreciated works.
In the shipwrecked variant of the seafaring tale (this film deftly incorporates elements of that, war film, and chamber drama) there can be visual monotony to the goings on. What Hitchcock does to break this up is balancing the claustrophobic (being on a small lifeboat with a group of survivors) to agoraphobic (the oceanic nothingness that surrounds them). Another visual component that gives this film some vibrancy is that Hitchcock uses close-ups sparingly. Instead he frames many three-quarter, two-, three-shots, and larger group shots.
While, like Rope, this is a unity of space tale (but not time) yet there are cinematic moments, cuts, and mise-en-scène. So while the actors often share the frame listening and reacting to each other in the same take this film never feels theatrical.
As the title indicates the primary motivation for all the characters is survival. It instantly jumps into the action barely showing the sinking of the passenger ship by a U-Boat and getting right into the lifeboat.
The sea and their vessel is the ideal setting for this clash of characters who are a microcosm of World War II’s combatants. The focus remains myopically on the characters only focusing on the seafaring aspect as much as necessary and as a function of these characters.
As Hitchcock did later on The Birds, there is no musical score in this film. It’s another decision that focuses the audience’s attention on the characters as it searches for more verisimilitude and less spectacle.
As each passenger climbs out of the wreckage and onto the boat, there is tension and conflict as those already on the boat discover who the newcomer is and more about them. This is mostly subsumed and not bombastic. Most of the overt conflict surrounds the character of Willi (Walter Slezak), the German who comes aboard.
There are deceptions along the way but the character of Willi is most definitely an intriguing one. Hitchcock mentioned to Truffaut that some criticism from the press about the film was about the Nazi being too skilled, in short that they wanted the movie to be more propagandistic as it was released in 1944. However, the fact that he was the most qualified to captain the lifeboat doesn’t changed the fact that he lied about his rank on the U-boat and what supplies he kept on his person amongst other things. Plus, he goes to great lengths to earn their trust in order that his deception(s) can go undetected.
Had the film been more starkly black and white in its characterization, as some critics wanted it to be (judging a film by what you want it to be, and not what it is, is a cardinal sin of criticism), I don’t think the film would have had the afterlife its enjoyed despite its disappearing from cinemas with little fanfare upon its initial release. Save for a rather lengthy run in New York.
With any film the audience, both critics and the general public, are the final arbiter of meaning and impact–or at least have the final say whether “correct” or not. My perspective ends up being somewhere between Truffaut who said:
At one time I was under the impression that Lifeboat intended to show that everyone is guilty, each of us has something to be ashamed of, and that no one man is qualified to pass judgment others.
And Hitchcock who said:
Here was a statement telling democracies to put aside their differences temporarily and to gather forces and concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was derived from a spirit of unity and determination.
In drawing the characters out, in giving them all dimension, you will naturally see flaws and positives in all these people. Having no character be a paragon of virtue is what makes this film art and not the propaganda some desired.
Yet Hitch’s message is also there, especially at the very end after the second shipwrecked Nazi is dealt with, the line is clearly delivering the moral he wants, but can be variously interpreted such that it doesn’t become a preachy statement–a trap many films of the era fell into. It could taken as a modern spin on the expression “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” The preceding events showed that when these people allowed their better natures to prevail and followed the Golden Rule they were taken advantage of. They were shown over and over again they could not deal with the Nazis humanely.
With Lifeboat Hitchcock puts on a morality play at sea with representative figures which are archetypal, yet layered; well-rounded and not stereotypical and it is perhaps that it did not connect as well 76 years ago as it might now.