Saturday, December 25, 2010


Title: Lifeboat
Year: 1944
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Screenplay: Jo Swerling
Source Material: A short story by John Steinbeck
Running Time: 93 minutes
A black & white picture

Saturday 25th December, 7:45am
Fizzgig is grumpy with me today as I had a bacon sandwich and I wouldn't share it with her. She is now sat on her Ikea bed and making known her displeasure.
Understandable, of course.
I have been looking forward to this day - Lifeboat is one of my absolute favourite Alfred Hitchcock movies. Certainly a contender for 'Top 5' (I will determine those at the conclusion of my entire blog next year!)

Constance Porter - Tallulah Bankhead
Gus Schmidt - William Bendix
Willi - Walter Slezak
Alice McKenzie - Mary Anderson
John Kovac - John Hodiak
Charles Rittenhouse - Henry Hull
Mrs Higley - Heather Angel
Stanley Garrett - Hume Cronyn
George "Joe" Spencer - Canada Lee
Young German - William Yetter Jr

An Allied freighter is sunk by a German U-boat's torpedo. As the last funnel dips beneath the surface, the sea calms and there is a scattering of debris and lost property and lost lives. A female reporter, Constance Porter, sits almost immaculately in a lifeboat smoking a cigarette. She frowns as she notices her stockings have a ladder.
Gradually, the lifeboat is boarded by a number of survivors. Some are crew from the ship, others are passengers. One is a German from the U-boat which was also sunk in the sea.
One of the survivors, Gus Smith, is wounded with a piece of shrapnel in his leg - luckily a young nurse, Alice McKenzie is aboard. Gus is not too keen on the presence of the German and he reveals that he changed his name from 'Schmidt' when the war began.
Mrs Higley is a young single mother who has been suffering from shell-shock - her infant child has died in the cold water, yet she keeps it huddled to her breast, deluded about its survival. While she sleeps, the others give the baby a burial at sea. When she awakes, she panics, desperately clamouring for her son. They tie her down to calm her and she collapses in exhaustion. However, in the morning, when everyone awakes, they discover she has thrown herself overboard.

The survivors do their best to maintain some order. They allocate jobs to each other, erect the mast and sail etc. They also determine that their German colleague, Willi, is actually the Captain of the sunken U-boat. It appears that he doesn't speak English but no one notices that he also has a compass secreted in his pocket.

Gus' leg is infected and due to its gangrenous state has to be amputated. He drinks what is left of the surviving brandy and Willi performs the operation assisted by Alice, despite the brewing storm.

When the sea is calmer, much later on, some play card games whilst others talk about their personal lives. Suspicions fall on Willi and when George is requested by the others to pick-pocket Willi, they all discover that he had the compass all along.
Another storm brews and in the panic, Willi takes charge and hurls out orders... in English. He was keeping this information secret as he wasn't sure he could trust any of them. In the storm, they lose the majority of their rations, including all the drinking water.

After the storm, we see relationships develop - the once antagonistic relationship between Kovac and Connie settles to something more respectful. Stanley and Alice develop a bond between them too.
Gus is secretly drinking the sea water. Willi notices but deliberately doesn't alert the fact to anyone.
Over time, people begin to grow cranky and anxious - all except Willi who remains calm and level-headed. This is because he has been keeping a secret supply of water in a bottle under his jacket. While everyone sleeps, Gus sees him drink from it. Gus tries to tell Stanley, but due to his delirious ramblings, Stanley ignores him and goes back to sleep. Willi has to silence Gus and pushes the crippled man over the edge and watches him drown. The others awake to his cries moments too late. In anger, they attack Willi as one mob and beat him to death and throw him over the side of the boat.

Having been through so much, Connie no longer cares as deeply for her Cartier bracelet as she once did and she offers it for use as bait to catch fish. Just as one bites, a ship is seen on the horizon. In the panic to get its attention, the fish, line and bait are lost in the sea.
The boat that arrives is a German supply ship. It appears they are going to be rescued, but the ship begins to turn away - it is being fired at by Allied forces. It is sunk and only one young German soldier survives, they rescue him and pull him aboard, but his initial reaction is to pull a gun on his captors. They disarm him and he asks if they are going to kill him.
The Allied ship is on its way and they will soon be rescued...

Great Lines
The screenplay has to be commended for being slick and taught with a number of juicy bits of dialogue. I shan't repeat them all here, but here are a few.

When Constance spies the baby's bottle floating in the ocean and wishes to take images of it with her camera, Kovac is appalled...

Kovac: "Why don't you wait for the baby to float by and photograph that!"


One of many pertinent moments comes when they are debating what to do with their German passenger. They ask 'Joe' for his opinion...

George: "Do I get to vote too?"


Kovac sums up Connie: "You've been all over the world, met all kinds of people, but you never write about them, you only write about yourself. You think this whole war's a show put on for you to cover like a Broadway play and if enough people die before the last act, maybe you might give it four stars."


Connie comments about Kovac's tattoos: "I never could understand this habit of making a billboard out of one's torso."


Before Willi kills Gus;

Gus: "If there's anything I can ever do for you, just let me know!"

Willi: "There is something you can do for me. Remember your name is 'Schmidt'."

Gus: "You like it better than 'Smith'?"

Willi: "Much better."


When they see the German supply ship coming to their aid;

Rittenhouse: "Do you suppose they'll have any coffee aboard? Real coffee?"

German calling from the boat: "Hello!"

Rittenhouse: "What'd he say?"

Constance: "He says yes, they have coffee... and weiner schnitzel and pigs' knuckles and sauerkraut and apple strudel..."

and then...

Rittenhouse: "Why are they turning around?"

Constance: "Maybe they forgot the cream for the coffee!"


And in the last few moments, the young German boy they rescue from the sea asks: "Aren't you going to kill me?"

Lifeboat was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, but failed to win. However, Tallulah Bankhead did win a New York Film Critics' Award for Best Actress - deservedly so.
Her performance as Constance is magnificent. We witness the character change from a callous and material woman to someone with a great deal more heart than she is credited for by the end of the movie. As she loses her possessions - from those of her livelihood (typewriter, camera etc) to her personal affectations (mink coat, cigarette, bracelet) - we see her shed the trappings of society to reveal a much more humane woman. It's noteworthy watching her personal items are all given selflessly, even though she mourns their loss. The mink she gives to the shell-shocked Mrs Higley, her last cigarette to the wounded Gus and her bracelet to the hungry fish...

For a whole movie to be set in one small lifeboat, one might imagine this film may turn out to be dull - however, the whole film is gripping, moving and fascinating on so many levels.
The death of the baby and, consequently, his mother is harrowing. Gus' murder is heartrendingly unfair and Willi's death by mob is at turns disturbing and satisfying. The fact that the final blow is with the heel of Gus' remaining boot is delightfully ironic.

Mention must be made of the costume and make-up department. They have done an incredible job of maintaining the progress of the characters' plight through beard growth, peeling skin, chapped lips and depleting and worn-out clothes.

Oh, and you may have noticed throughout this blog that I haven't gone into great detail about Hitchcock's cameo appearances as this has been detailed many, many times before. However, his appearance in a weight-loss advert in a newspaper is rather clever and amusing.

My Verdict
Need I say it again? One of my favourites! (Obviously, I felt the need...) 10/10

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