Alfred Hitchcock may be remembered forever as "The Master of Suspense," etched into cinema history by several masterpieces and some shrewd self-promotion, but few will remember the legendary auteur's second career: journeyman director. Hitchcock got his start in the film industry as a graphic artist, creating title-cards for London's Famous Players-Lasky studio, which quickly led to directing jobs in the mad dash of silent-era productions. Nearly a third of Hitchcock's filmography preceded his first breakout hit, 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, and while he later became synonymous with sophisticated thrillers, from time to time he also took on the sort of material that marked his younger days as a director-for-hire. Lesser entries, such as Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Paradine Case (1947) tend to attract completists, while Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is a competent screwball comedy and Dial 'M' for Murder (1954) is a superior stage-play adaptation. Hitchcock first came to America as a journeyman, undertaking producer David O. Selznick's Rebecca (1940) Selznick got an Oscar, Hitchcock didn't. And when Selznick loaned out Hitch to Daryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, the director asked John Steinbeck to write a story for him. But not about murders, or microfilm, or innocent men accused of crimes they didn't commit he simply wanted to make a movie entirely in a lifeboat.
Lifeboat (1944) begins with two startling images: A smokestack on a large transatlantic steamer bellows coal-black soot, only to tip over sideways and fall into the sea; amid the floating debris-field, a lifeboat contains a glamorous woman, smoking a cigarette with luggage at her side, perturbed that she has a run in her stocking. She is Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), an international reporter who as with everyone else on the Merchant Marine vessel finds her New York-to-London voyage disrupted by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Soon, others find the lifeboat and climb aboard, including seamen John Kovac (John Hodiak), Gus Smith (William Bendix), and Sparks Garrett (Hume Cronyn); galley mate George Spencer (Canada Lee); industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); and nurse Alice McKenzie (Mary Anderson). Some survivors confirm that the steamer was able to torpedo the U-boat before she went down, destroying both vessels a fact made plain when the American survivors pluck German sailor Willy (Walter Slezak) from the chilly Atlantic. Debate over how to handle the German prisoner reveals early discord among the Americans, whose temperaments range from communist to isolationist to fascist. The situation is made even more dire when they realize they'll have to sail for the nearest land, and Willy is the only one among them who can navigate by currents and stars.
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Lacking the suspense, plotting, and dark humor that marks Alfred Hitchcock's masterworks, Lifeboat is the director's most notable break with the thriller genre. And for it, critical reception has been mixed in some quarters. New York Tribune critic Dorothy Thomson famously gave it "ten days to get out of town," while Hitchcock authority Donald Spoto has described it as his least-favorite Hitchcock film. To be certain, Lifeboat is grim the characters' predicament is underscored by a constant sense of loss and wearing away, as one by one things are sent overboard: a camera, a typewriter, food and water, an amputated leg, and eventually people. But the picture overcomes its own bleakness thanks to Hitchcock's masterful handling. Lifeboat marked Hitch's first foray into one of his favorite cinematic experiments, the single-set film. Dial 'M' for Murder, Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954) would follow, but rarely would the director undertake a project quite this ambitious again. With most of the principal photography to take place on actual water, a massive tank with rear-projection served as the primary locale, which brought about sea-sickness among the cast, a case of pneumonia for Tallulah Bankhead, and a near-drowning for Hume Cronyn. Nonetheless, the confined space forced Hitchcock to create a variety of compositions with nothing more than his cast and the pitching sea, and virtually every shot is a small study in Academy-ratio framing. As always, Hitch demanded a solid script, and while John Steinbeck earned prominent credit, Hitchcock and scenarist Jo Swerling compiled the final dialogue, which is sharp enough to work as a straightforward radio play. Bankhead's A-list work is supported by a well-rounded cast, in particular John Hodiak, the Steinbeck-esque left-wing machinist, and Walter Slezak, who toys with the audience's sympathies as the German captive. Lifeboat may never garner the enduring popularity of such Hitchcockian treats as North By Northwest and Psycho. But it deserves its reputation as one of his great minor masterworks, earning new admirers every year thanks to the name above the title.
Fox's DVD release of Lifeboat features a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that looks excellent overall. There are moments in the film when the transfer appears to display artifacts, but in fact this most likely is a result of the oil-and-water mist Hitchcock directed at his stars with giant fans (and they say he didn't like actors). Audio is crisp clear in both the original mono and a new Dolby 2.0 stereo track. Supplements include an informative commentary from USC film professor Drew Casper, as well as the featurette "Lifeboat: The Theater of War" (20 min.) and five stills galleries. Keep-case.