Lifeboat (1944): Starring Tallulah Bankhead

In 1943, Hitchcock directed the WWII melodrama, “Lifeboat”, starring the great stage actress Tallulah Bankhead in her best-known screen role.

Though approaching WWII from a strange perspective that differed from most of Hollywood pictures of the era, “Lifeboat” is not one of Hitchcock’s strong films. Among others things, the film has the misfortune of being released after Hitchcock’s first American masterpiece, “Shadow of a Doubt.”

However, thematically, it is still pertinent, with some disturbing moments, and stylistically, the film is experimental due to the manipulation of restricted space.

The whole action was confined to a small lifeboat adrift on the Atlantic with a handful of survivors from a torpedoed freighter. Among them was the captain of the attacking U-boat, which was also sunk during the engagement.

Over the years, the literature on this film indicates divided response among critics, from those who dismiss it as silly and contrived to those who stress the technical properties, to those who single it out as a star vehicle for Bankhead. (Hitchcock himself was of two minds about “Lifeboat”)

Though Bankhead plays the major role, there’s no clear central figure, and “Lifeboat,” like Hitchcock’s late pictures (“Topaz,” “Family Plot””) is more of an ensemble piece.

The oddly assorted group of castaways is meant to represent a cross-section of Allied nationalities, different points of view, and personality types. They include a self-centered lady journalist (Tallulah Bankhead), a bewildered nurse (Mary Anderson), a shy radio operator (Hume Cronyn), a tough crew member of Czech ancestry (John Hodiak), a shipping magnate (Henry Hull), a crazed mother (Heather Angel) and her dead baby, a black steward (Canada Lee), and a wounded crewman (William Bendix).

The film was a microcosm of the war and it was the character of the Nazi U-boat captain, excellently acted by Walter Slezak, who provided the most startling and controversial aspect of the picture. The Nazi was portrayed as the only stable, level-headed and practical member of the group. He was the only one among them who had a plan for survival amid the confusion and self-pity that marked his lifeboat companions. This was a disturbing factor to some critics, who were plainly alarmed at the implications. Hitchcock, however, said that he made the Nazi a strong character in order to indicate that the Nazis should not be underestimated by the Allies.

“Lifeboat” was a box-office success in New York and other big cities, but not in Middle America, or elsewhere. Hitchcock received an Academy Award nomination for best Director and Tallulah Bankhead won the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award.

The Nazi (Walter Slezak) is not a stock villain, but a “charming” Hitchcockian devil.

Significantly, the only character who holds back from the mob violence and lynching is the black guy (well played by Canada Lee).

There are several disturbing scenes, in which the audience is encouraged to sympathize or empathize with the killers, but also feel embarrassed and ashamed by their feelings. The audience is left free to regard action from objective, detached viewpoint.

Hitchcock himself had said that “Lifeboat” was “a silly film from a crazy idea.

Tallulah Banhead, in a scene-stealing performance, overacts and she unintentionally underlines the picture’s limitations, steering it in several scenes into camp. Fans of the star, better known for her stage work, see it as a self-mocking grandiloquence.

The Canadian critic Robin Wood has pointed out the film’s subversive critique of capitalism, by drawing parallels between the Nazi captain and the American self-made millionaire. Inadvertently, “Lifeboat” suggests that fascism is an extension rather than opposite of capitalist democracy.

Much has been made of the technical tour de force of shooting virtually a whole film in a restricted space — but the real tour de force is in the continuous shifting of the viewers’ identification positions, from scene to scene and sometimes n within a single shot.


20th Century-Fox.
Produced by Kenneth Macgowan.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck.
Camera: Glen MacWilliams
Special Effects: Fred Sersen
Sets: James Basevi and Maurice Hansford
Music: Hugo Friedhofer, directed by Emil Newman
Costumes: Rene Hubert
Editing: Dorothy Spencer

Release date: January 12, 1944


Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead)
Gus (William Bendix)
Willy (Walter Slezak)
Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson)
Kovac (John Hodiak)
Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull)
Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel)
Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn)
George “Joe” Spencer (Canada Lee)