Today: April 18, 2024

Lifeboat

The Greek philosopher Plato once argued that governing a state is very much like piloting a ship. When a ship is caught in a storm, the crew do not demand a vote, they simply follow the captain’s orders on the assumption that he is the person most qualified to make important decisions.

The Greek philosopher Plato once
argued that governing a state is very much like piloting a ship. When a ship is
caught in a storm, the crew do not demand a vote, they simply follow the
captain’s orders on the assumption that he is the person most qualified to make
important decisions.
Conversely, when the ship of state gets into trouble,
people begin demanding elections rather than trusting the judgement of their
rulers. According to Plato, governance is a skill and only the most skilled
should be allowed to rule. This venerable anti-democratic argument forms the
basis for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s
most criminally under-rated films. Brilliantly shot, wonderfully acted and
based upon a treatment by John Steinbeck,
Lifeboat is a war film that
questions our tendency to let someone else take all the decisions because they
seem to know what it is that they are doing.

The film opens with stock footage
of a sinking ship. From there, the camera pans across a sea littered with flaming
wreckage before eventually coming to rest on surreal image of a woman sitting
in a lifeboat wearing jewels and a fur coat. The woman in question is a sassy
journalist (Bankhead) who is rapidly
joined by a motley crew of survivors including a millionaire industrialist (Hull), an angry workingman (Hodiak), a warm-hearted everyman (Bendix), and a German submariner (Slezak) who was separated from his crew
during the battle.

Initially, the survivors get along
quite well, exchanging witty banter as the industrialist takes charge and
optimistically concludes that they are likely to survive as the lifeboat is “in
the black”. However, the instant the crew have to decide upon a heading that
might get them rescued, the industrialist’s lack of sailing expertise becomes
all too evident. This forces the crew to topple the existing regime and hand
power to the belligerent workingman. Again, this new government proves
deceptively competent until a member of the crew is injured and the only man
capable of saving his life turns out to be the German, who appears eminently
trustworthy despite the workingman’s nationalist paranoia. As the crew lurch
from one catastrophe to the next, new leaders are elected only for them to be
immediately discredited and cast aside by a mob-like crew too concerned with
their own self-interest and vanity to pull together. Their muscles aching,
their bellies growling and their faith in democracy shattered, the crew
eventually turn to the German seaman for leadership and marvel at his endless reserves
of knowledge, energy and good humour. Maybe the Germans are the master race
after all?

Despite being directed by Alfred
Hitchcock, Lifeboat is not so much a thriller as it is a psychological drama.
Indeed, while there are undoubtedly a few tense moments, Hitchcock places the
film’s emphasis squarely on the characters and the decisions forced upon them
by circumstance. Unfortunately, some characters prove to be more deserving of
this emphasis than others meaning that the film tends to drag when its attention
switches towards the more sentimental character arcs such as the burgeoning
love affairs and the warm-hearted everyman’s endless carping about his
girlfriend back home. Thankfully, these doldrums are relatively short lived and
the remainder of the characters are more than deserving of the attention
lavished upon them. Particularly awesome are Slezak’s ambiguous performance as
a congenial Nazi, Bankhead’s echo of Rosalind
Russell
’s fast-talking newshound in Howard
Hawks’
His Girl Friday and
Hull’s liberal industrialist who suddenly shows the steel that made his fortune
only for the wind to sweep it all away.

Looking beyond its political themes
and its character studies, Lifeboat displays the fondness for small sets that
reappears in such better-known Hitchcockian classics as Rope, Dial M for Murder
and Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, the
film received a bevvy of Oscar Nominations for its searing black and white
cinematography and the directorial flair required to set an entire 98-minute
film on a solitary lifeboat. As we have come to expect from Eureka’s Masters of
Cinema imprint, the Blu-ray release of Lifeboat is technically superb and makes
a film that is over seventy years old look almost brand new. Particularly
impressive are the colour contrasts in the skies above the raft. The Blu-ray
also comes with a booklet of essays, an insightful making-of documentary, a
discussion of the film featuring Truffaut and Hitchcock and a couple of rarely
seen French-language propaganda films made by Hitchcock during the war.

Despite a narrative that is a touch
more flabby than one might expect given Hitchcock’s reputation as a director of
non-nonsense thrillers, Lifeboat remains a thoughtful and engaging film comprising
a number of brilliant cinematic moments. Available both as a Blu-ray and a dual
format release containing both Blu-ray and DVD, Masters of Cinema continue to
plunder the archives and remind us of brilliant films that have unjustly faded
from view.

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