Sunday, December 12, 2010

DVD Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944)

(Released: 2005 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Some of my best friends are… [Fill in the blank].” Tallulah Bankhead, as Constance Porter in “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat”.

As a comment both pretentious and flip, Ms. Bankhead responds to different situations throughout the film in this way. The meanings and origins of so many past pop-cultural references are lost to history. Just watch some old Looney Tunes to see what I mean! For all I know, the old chestnut “Some of my best friends are… [Fill in the blank]” COULD very well have begun with this film. After all, if you were a phrase both tributed and parodied for decades, you could do much worse than originating from within an Alfred Hitchcock film.

And what a film for Hitchcock! From its beginnings as a novella, commissioned by no less an author than John Steinbeck, to its conclusion as a tightly directed survival drama, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat” explodes across the screen with its initial image of a rapidly sinking ship.

No character setup and no “B-story” to slow things down, a New York to London freighter, in 1944, has ALREADY been torpedoed and sunk as the opening credits sequence plays over the boat’s last smokestack gasp. Distant Allied fire has, in turn, sunk the predatory U-Boat. Tallulah Bankhead’s Constance Porter is alone in a lifeboat, with as many luxuries and necessities as she could pack on board.

One by one, other survivors climb aboard until there are six men and three women… and then one more survivor is pulled out of the drink. He thanks his rescuers… in German! Not just any German citizen, but a German officer. And not just any German officer, but the captain of the very sub that sunk the freighter – the killer of so many friends and crewmates of the survivors.

Um, anyone for TENSION?

Bankhead is amazingly over-the-top for a woman’s role in a film of this type and of this period. She is at once capable, cynical, a diva (or the 1940s equivalent of one), a romantic, and most important of all – a strong survivor. You quickly get the impression that she could master (or, at least, negotiate) the toughest of situations.

FOX contract player John Hodiak, as “Kovac” of the ship’s engine room crew – and the first survivor to join Bankead in the lifeboat – is a “poor man’s Humphrey Bogart” in the way he plays the role. Indeed, Bankhead and Hodiak conjure up images of the dynamic between Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen”.

William Bendix is a standout as sailor “Gus Smith” (formerly “Schmidt” but renounces his German heritage over the war), as is Hume Cronin as “Stanley Garrett” as a merchant mariner. Black actor Canada Lee, as “Joe”, is also given an unusually important and positive role for the times, despite a less than stellar introductory sequence. Lee’s character might be the least flawed of all the lifeboat’s occupants – and that was certainly (and unfortunately) unusual in filmmaking of the period.

But Walter Slezak, as the German Commander, steals the picture! To discuss his role in any more detail would take us into “Spoiler Territory” – but let’s just say “WOW!” and leave it at that!

Hitchcock does something amazing in his direction of the film. There is only ONE SET… The Lifeboat! From the moment we shift from the brief image of the sinking ship, and we first join Tallulah Bankhead in the lifeboat, we never cut away from it for the entire picture! No digressions, no cutaways, no other ships, search planes, or worried folks left behind. It’s the boat and ONLY the boat for the entirety of the picture.

…And you never once tire of it! In fact, you can’t look away from it! Something of interest or intrigue is going on AT ALL TIMES in this small craft! That, folks, is GREAT direction!

And direction that literally stands the test of time, as many of the same character dynamics would manifest themselves DECADES LATER in the television series LOST (2004-2010). (…At least before “time travel” and the ultimate manifestations of “Good and Evil” became hallmarks of the series!) The power struggles within the Lifeboat reflect those of The Island, and most characters have similar – if not outright direct – counterparts on the J.J. Abrams teledrama. One could only imagine the glories of a LOST feature film, directed by Hitchcock in his prime!

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


There is one definite “CON”. Though the Extra Features are otherwise adequate, there is NO Theatrical Trailer included for “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat”.

In films of this vintage, I’ve come to appreciate the Theatrical Trailer as a unique art form all its own. I will watch it immediately before the film, and once again immediately after. The former to build the anticipation, and the latter to see just how well (or poorly) the film has been covered in its most impactful form of advertising.

Besides, a Theatrical Trailer is a standard extra for films on DVD, and its omission here is quite puzzling.

My personal baseline for “Extra Features” on a movie DVD would be a Theatrical Trailer, commentary track, and a short “making-of” featurette. The lack of any one of these components leaves me wanting. You’d think the Theatrical Trailer would be the easiest and least costly of these three components to include.


The Film: Story, cast, and (needless to say) direction are all first rate. Print quality is generally fine for a film of its age, though there are some brief spots that are rougher than others.

Menu Navigation: Menus are attractive, representative of the film, and are easy to navigate – with the slight exception of the “Still Gallery” that will be covered as part of “Extra Features”.

Extra Features:

Commentary Track:

FOX provides a commentary track that can be optionally played over the film, by Dr. Drew Casper – Hitchcock scholar, film historian, and instructor at USC.

Casper’s commentary, for the entire 1:37:20 length of the film, comes off as somewhat dry and professorial, when contrasted with other film commentaries – particularly the superb effort by Stephen Rebello for “Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition” (Blu-ray). See that review HERE!

In my opinion, too much time is spent on filmmaking style – and the influences of German and Soviet techniques – for a general audience more interested in detail on the “who, how, where, and when” aspects of the film.

Casper DOES let loose some valuable nuggets… just not nearly enough of them to satisfy non-film-school-attending me.

For instance Alfred Hitchcock lost 100 pounds around the time of “Lifeboat” – from about 300 down to about 200. And that he was very sensitive about talk of his weight.

The Making of Lifeboat” (Runs 19:58).

This documentary nicely covers the film, the historic collaboration between Hitchcock and John Steinbeck, the casting dynamics, the requisite “Hitchcock Cameo” embedded somewhere in the film, and the special effects. The latter including a huge water tank on the FOX lot (upon which the Lifeboat would float), with an equally huge agitator, used for the special effects storm sequences.

Watching the storm sequence, with the knowledge of the massive agitating tank on the FOX back lot, makes me wonder if that same tank was used for the superb storm sequences for VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA’s “The Exile” (with Richard Basehart and Edward Asner stranded on a raft at sea) and the better-known early episode of LOST IN SPACE “The Hungry Sea”, where the Robinson family traverses a stormy “inland sea” in The Chariot. Both episodes were filmed at FOX, and both sequences had a very similar look and feel to the storm sequence in “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat”.

It is not impossible that the agitating tank, constructed in the ‘40s, could still exist at FOX 20 years later – and be repurposed for television use. And, personally, it’s kinda nice to know that there might very well be an Alfred Hitchcock / Irwin Allen connection!

Participants in the featurette include: Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred’s daughter), Dr. Drew Casper who provided the film commentary, and others.

Still Gallery:

Enjoyable, but comes with a few too many operating instructions for jockeying your remote in exchange for the interest and enjoyment it provides. There are two basic varieties of “still galleries” on DVD – those that allow you to control the pace with your remote, and those that auto-advance in “slideshow” fashion.

I am equally divided on which one I prefer.

The former insists that you never let loose of the remote for the duration of the presentation, and the pace you choose may not be compatible with others in the room – requiring you to call out: “OKAY?” before you advance to the next still.

The latter will most likely move at a pace “too fast” or “too slow” for optimum viewing. Again, especially if there are other viewers beside yourself. Too often, I will pause on a particular still to assimilate the detail, and then have to wait until it’s ready to advance on its own. And, if I don’t do that, it may advance before I’m ready to keep up.

That said, the material is quite interesting, and provides an informative “window” into the times of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat”. Subsections consist of: “Advertising Lifeboat”, “Newspaper Ads”, “Newspaper Articles”, “Display Accessories” (used in movie theatre lobbies), and “Theatre Promotions and Contests” (to drum up publicity for the film).

When the text is “too small” on many of the images, a larger blow-up of the sections of text is provided. Nicely done.


This is a great film with an almost-adequate slate of Extra Features. It is recommended for Hitchcock fans, general suspense drama fans, and enthusiasts of the wartime period. Give it extra points for the ingenious way Alfred Hitchcock pulls-off his cameo in a film that never once shifts its sea-bound setting or employs the use ancillary characters!

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