“Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked…”
“Man, I certainly feel like it…”
Within the first 15 minutes of Lifeboat – a simple enough story about disparate personalities trapped together following a shipwreck – a baby dies and is given a sea burial. One needs go no further than this to realise just how far Hitchcock had already come, here in 1944, from his silent, British roots – but Hitchcock does. Later another of the boat’s inhabitants has his leg amputated with only brandy, music, and a kiss from Tallulah Bankhead to ease the pain. And later still, the boat’s entire population turns on a Nazi. This is one heavy-handed masterpiece of a movie, and I adored it more on this latest viewing than ever.
The boat serves much the same purpose as the train in The Lady Vanishes, keeping a perfect flow to the action, but the action here is far from the jolly romp there. Also setting Lifeboat apart from Hitchcock’s previous work is the fact that the lifeboat is all there is – the boat, the water, endless fog, and people. It’s the first Hitchcock movie that is entirely constructed before our eyes, no specific location made explicit… it could be happening almost anywhere, and really almost any-when. There’s even a moment where two characters are playing cards, and they’ve had to create their own deck by writing on pieces of paper (incidentally we see a deck of cards amidst the wreckage debris that Hitchcock opens the movie on). It’s the pure cinema that he always strived for. The camera never stops tracking with the ocean’s every roll and yaw, so much so that I imagine seeing this movie on the big screen could even make one a little nauseous if you’re prone to sea-sickness. The entire movie is a nonstop technical feat, and this is even before you add the characters and the performances behind those characters.
As with a couple of the other movies I’d already seen before in this Hitchcock marathon, there was just one moment in this that had remained with me vividly for around 10 years since first or last seeing it, and that’s the immense shot at the end of the German supply ship as it towers over them. Like the ending of Foreign Correspondent, it’s ultimately maybe not as awe-inspiring as remembered (the perils of letting a movie stew in your mind for so long without revisiting it, perhaps)… but the overall impact of these 90 minutes is utterly undiminished. As said by Bankhead in the movie itself,
“In a word: wow!”