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Film / Lifeboat

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Lifeboat is a 1944 World War II drama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on a story by John Steinbeck. It is notable for having all of its action confined to a single, claustrophobic setting: a small lifeboat adrift in the North Atlantic.

The film begins with the sinking of a passenger ship, depicted in the opening credits with a closeup of a smokestack as it descends and slips beneath the water. Shortly thereafter a lifeboat appears occupied by one passenger, an elegant, snooty newspaper columnist named Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead). Other survivors soon make their way onto the boat: Kovac (John Hodiak), Stanley (Hume Cronyn), Joe (Canada Lee), and Gus (William Bendix), four of the ship's crew; C.J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), a wealthy industrialist; Alice (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse; and Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a British war refugee. Finally, they pick up Willy (Walter Slezak), a German sailor from the U-boat that sank their ship—the U-boat, it turns out, also sank. Kovac wants to throw Willy back into the ocean, but the others prevail on him to do the honorable thing and keep the German aboard as a prisoner. The passengers aboard the lifeboat have to struggle to survive on the open ocean, while Willy plays them off each other in an effort to gain control.

Released in the middle of the war, Lifeboat took a lot of criticism at the time for making its German villain a strong and intelligent character. It bombed at the box office but still got Alfred Hitchcock an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (he didn't win).

Later got a sci-fi remake as the 1993 Made-for-TV Movie Lifepod.

This film provides examples of:

  • Amputation Stops Spread: Gus's leg is amputated on the lifeboat to prevent the spread of gangrene.
  • Asshole Victim: Willy was an unrepentant Nazi U-Boat captain who was directly responsible for the deaths of everyone on board the ship who wasn't in the lifeboat, manipulated the survivors, hoarded food and water for himself while letting everyone else dehydrate, and pushed Gus overboard. It's actually quite cathartic to watch the group beat him to death.
  • Behind the Black: There are several instances where Willy checks his compass before it's revealed to the other passengers and, although he does it discreetly, the angles that are established in the wide-shots before and after he checks the compass often mean that at least one other person really should have seen exactly what he was doing.
  • Beta Couple: Stanley and Alice to Connie and Kovac.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Willy can only speak German, with Connie translating—until the storm hits the boat and he starts barking orders in perfect, fluent English.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The group will be rescued and Willy is beaten to death, but Gus is dead, they're all pretty much fed up with the senseless wastes of war and the plight they had to live through, and may or may not keep the fact that they took Willy on board and then killed him in secret.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with a sinking ship (courtesy of a naval battle that ended on a Mutual Kill). Also the movie starts and ends with a German sailor (one Faux Affably Evil, one that does not even try) arriving to the boat.
  • Break the Haughty: Connie's character arc, in a nutshell, and most of it Played for Laughs. By the last scene, she's equally haggard and shell-shocked with everybody else and lost everything of value on her person that she didn't lost when the ship sank. On the bright side, she may have an interesting story to tell... but it would also include her having to keep secret the parts about murdering Willy.
  • Building of Adventure: Not a building in the strict sense of the word, but all of the action takes place on a small lifeboat.
  • Cassandra Truth: Stanley doesn't believe Gus when he insists Willy has water because he's also been rambling that he's out having drinks and dancing with Rosie.
  • Claustrophobia: Trapped in a lifeboat, with hunger and thirst eating away at the passengers. Willy hoards food and water, which eventually allows him to take charge.
  • Closed Circle: Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink... nor land in sight, or way to communicate, or way of knowing where they are...
  • Creator Cameo: Hitchcock always did these, but here it proved a challenge given the Closed Circle plot. After considering the possibility of playing a corpse floating in the water, he inserted himself into a newspaper read by one of the characters. He's shown in a pair of "Before" and "After" Pictures for a weight-loss advertisement. There's even a Freeze-Frame Bonus testimonial in the ad.
    The well-known director ALFRED HITCHCOCK says: "In just Four Months I lost 73 pounds due the splendid new Reduco System!"
  • Death of a Child: The baby Mrs. Higgins brings aboard the boat is revealed to be dead.
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Gus has an injured leg which becomes infected. They have to amputate it to save his life (which pains Gus, due to his love for dancing) only for Willi to murder Gus because He Knows Too Much.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mrs. Higgins throws herself overboard after realizing her baby has died.
  • During the War: World War II, to be exact. Enmity to the Nazis and the fact that they would be prisoners to the Nazis if picked up by them is one of the biggest reasons why they are all concerned about Willy.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: A baby bottle floats by the boat. Subverted when Connie grabs her camera so she can capture a dramatic Empathy Doll Shot.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Any possibility that Willy might be a good guy is eliminated when, upon the reveal that Mrs. Higgins' baby is dead, he gives a bored yawn and lies down to take a nap.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Willy is cheerful and polite, and sings German folk songs as he rows the boat. He also hides water and food, does not reveal that he has a compass and can speak English (or that his plan is to navigate to a Nazi supply boat and take everybody else prisoner), and murders poor Gus after Gus catches him swigging from his hidden water flask.
  • Foreshadowing: Connie starts to film a baby bottle floating in the water. Kovac chastises her for her callousness, asking if she wouldn't rather wait for the baby to float by. When the baby is brought aboard, it's dead.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We see nothing of Gus' gangrenous leg or the subsequent amputation. The reactions are enough.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Connie is a war correspondent who thinks this will all go nicely into her new book.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Near the end while waiting for the rescue ship to pick them up, the group fishes a young sailor from the sunken German ship out of the sea only to have him pull a gun on them. After they take it from him and discard it, Alice contemptuously says, "I'll have to tie this up 'til the ship's doctor takes care of it."
    Rittenhouse: See? You can't treat them as human beings; you've got to exterminate them.
  • It's All About Me: Kovac gives Connie a review of her writing: it's all about you.
    • Rittenhouse also displays this attitude several times, most notably when he automatically assumes that he should be the de facto leader of the lifeboat and, although he eventually concedes the loss of leadership first to Kovac and then to Willy, he's clearly not happy when Kovac initially challenges his position.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Kovac doesn't tend to express himself in the most polite of ways, but he is nearly always right in the arguments he brings up. He regularly reiterates the point that they can't trust Willy (an enemy soldier who is also the captain of the U-Boat that shelled the ship they were all on) and are stupid for letting their guards down around him and eventually allowing him to take charge with no questions; Rittenhouse is completely unqualified to be the skipper of the lifeboat and it ultimately does make more sense to have an actual seaman in charge; Connie is incredibly self-absorbed, etc.
  • Lonely at the Top: Late in the movie, Rittenhouse makes a comment hinting that he feels isolated in his role as an industrialist, particularly because he and his wife have never had children.
  • Lost at Sea: With little food or water. They try to sail to the island of Bermuda, but Willy deliberately steers them in the other direction, towards a German supply ship.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Minor version. The movie starts with the survivors arguing amongst themselves about what to do with Willy, deciding to keep him aboard because they can't find it in themselves to hurt another human being. After everything they have suffered in general and Willy turning out to be a two-faced bastard in specific, the second German soldier that comes aboard is treated like a thing and one of them even says that all Nazis should be exterminated.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Willy lies to the others, plays them against each other, and through sheer force of will winds up in charge, rowing them all to the German supply ship and internment.
  • Meaningful Rename: Gus Schmidt changed his last name to Smith because of anti-German sentiment in America after the war broke out.
  • Mutual Kill: Two of these (between a German and an Allied ship) book-end the film.
  • Ocean Madness: Poor Gus starts to lose it when he starts drinking seawater.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: We don't learn Stanley's name right away, because the other crew members constantly call him "Sparks" (the standard nickname for a ship's radio operator).
  • Pretty in Mink: While all the others had to swim to the lifeboat, Connie got in it before the boat sank, and is decked out in all of her finery, including her mink coat. This provides for a bit of comedy when other passengers climb aboard soaking wet and slick with oil, only to goggle at her.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: There's no score for the film, with the only music being the flute played by Joe and Rittenhouse (and Willy's singing).
  • Running Gag: Connie got to the boat before the ship sank, and managed to also bring away her mink coat, her camera, her typewriter, her diamond bracelet, and her luggage. She gradually loses all of her stuff over the course of the film.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: The discussion of the circumstances in which one asks what time it is resembles this, although it does turn out to be relevant.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Connie and Kovac.
  • Small, Secluded World: The entire film takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic.
  • Token Minority: Joe is the only black character in the film.