I’d like to be lost at sea with this great cast anyday
In one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films, six people with different personalities and backgrounds are stranded together in a lifeboat after the passenger-carrying freighter they are on is sunk by a German u-boat in the Mid-Atlantic. The cast includes the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead as a bitchy photo-journalist, Hume Cronyn as kind-hearted man who finds love on the lifeboat, Canada Lee as a kind steward, Walter Slezak as a mysterious German, and John Hodiak who has to dodge Tallulah’s nonstop advances. Hitchcock did this film on one set – the single lifeboat. What’s amazing is that he could keep things interesting for two hours, but he managed to somehow. Bankhead is this movie’s greatest asset. Reportedly, she didn’t wear underwear on the set and constantly kept the crew at attention! This is a great, novel film.
During filming, several crew members noted that Tallulah Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Alfred Hitchcock observed, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing.”
At the time that Lifeboat went into production, Alfred Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Twentieth Century-Fox obtained the director’s services in exchange for that of several actors and technicians, as well as the rights to three stories that Fox owned. Hitchcock was to direct two films for the studio, but the second was never made, apparently because Fox was unhappy with the length of time taken to finish production on Lifeboat.
It was Hitchcock who came up with the idea for the film. He approached A.J. Cronin, James Hilton and Ernest Hemingway to help write the script, before giving the project to John Steinbeck, who had previously written the screenplay for the 1941 documentary The Forgotten Village but had not written a fictional story for the screen. It was Steinbeck’s intention to write and publish a novel and sell the rights to the studio, but the story was never published, as his literary agents considered it “inferior”. Steinbeck received $50,000 ($724,000 today) for the rights to his story. Steinbeck was unhappy with the film because it presented what he considered to be “slurs against organized labor” and a “stock comedy Negro” when his story had a “Negro of dignity, purpose and personality”.
He requested, unsuccessfully, that his name be removed from the credits. When a condensed version of the film story appeared in Collier’s magazine on November 13, 1942, it was credited to Hitchcock and writer Harry Sylvester, with Steinbeck credited with the “original screen story”. Other writers who worked on various drafts of the script include Hitchcock’s wifeAlma Reville, MacKinlay Kantor, Patricia Collinge, Albert Mannheimer and Marian Spitzer. Hitchcock also brought in Ben Hecht to rewrite the ending.
Lifeboat was originally planned to be filmed in Technicolor with an all-male cast, many of whom were going to be unknowns. Canada Lee, who was primarily a stage acto. with only one film credit at the time, was the first actor cast in the film.
Hitchcock planned the camera angles for the film using a miniature lifeboat and figurines. Four lifeboats were used during shooting. Rehearsals took place in one, separate boats were used for close-ups and long shots and another was in the studio’s large-scale tank, where water shots were made. Except for background footage shot by the second unit around Miami, in the Florida Keys and on San Miguel Island in California, the film was shot in the Twentieth Century-Fox studio on Pico Boulevard in what is now Century City.
Lifeboat was in production from August 3 through November 17, 1943. Illnesses were a constant part of the production from the beginning. Before shooting began, William Bendix replaced actor Murray Alperwhen Alper became ill and after two weeks of shooting, director of photography Arthur Miller was replaced by Glen MacWilliams because of illness. Tallulah Bankhead came down with pneumonia twice during shooting and Mary Anderson became seriously ill during production, causing several days of production time to be lost. Hume Cronyn suffered two cracked ribs and nearly drowned when he was caught under a water-activator making waves for a storm scene. He was saved by a lifeguard. The film is unique among Hitchcock’s American films for having no musical score during the narrative (apart from the singing of the U-boat captain, accompanied by flute); the Fox studio orchestra was only used for the opening and closing credits.
Director Alfred Hitchcock made cameo appearances in most of his films. He once commented to François Truffaut – in Hitchcock/Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1967) – that this particular cameo was difficult to achieve, due to the lack of passers-by in the film. While having originally considered posing as a body floating past the lifeboat – which he later considered for his cameo in Frenzy – after his success with weight loss, Hitchcock decided to pose for “before” and “after” photos for an advertisement for a fictional weight-loss drug, “Reduco”, shown in a newspaper which was in the boat. Supposedly, he later received letters from people asking about Reduco, which he used again in Rope, where Hitchcock’s profile and Reduco appear on a red neon sign.The Lifeboat cameo appears 24 minutes into the film.
While modern critics see the film positively, Lifeboat‘s portrayal of a German character in what was perceived as a positive fashion caused considerable controversy at the time of its release. Influential reviewers and columnists including Dorothy Thompson and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times saw the film as denigrating the American and British characters while glorifying the German. Crowther wrote that “the Nazis, with some cutting here and there, could turn Lifeboat into a whiplash against the ‘decadent democracies.’ And it is questionable whether such a picture, with such a theme, is judicious at this time.” In Truffaut’s 1967 book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock paraphrased Thompson’s criticism as “Dorothy Thompson gave the film ten days to get out of town.”
Such commentary caused Steinbeck, who had previously been criticized because of his handling of German characters in The Moon Is Down, to publicly disassociate himself from the film, to denounce Hitchcock and Swerling’s treatment of his material, and to request that his name not be used by Fox in connection with the presentation of the film. Crowther responded by detailing the differences between Steinbeck’s novella and the film as released, accusing the film’s creators of “pre-empting” Steinbeck’s “creative authority”.
Hitchcock responded to the criticism by explaining that the film’s moral was that the Allies needed to stop bickering and work together to win the war, and he defended the portrayal of the German character, saying, “I always respect my villain, build[ing] him into a redoubtable character that will make my hero or thesis more admirable in defeating him or it.” Bankhead backed him up in an interview in which she said that the director “wanted to teach an important lesson. He wanted to say that you can’t trust the enemy… in Lifeboat you see clearly that you can’t trust a Nazi, no matter how nice he seems to be.”
Tallulah Bankhead called the criticism leveled at the film that it was too pro-Axis “moronic”.
Criticism was also leveled at the script for its portrayal of the African-American character Joe as “too stereotypical.” Actor Canada Lee testified that he had attempted to round out the character by revising dialogue, primarily eliminating repeated “yessir”s and “nossir”s that sounded subservient and cutting some actions. The overseas section of the Office of War Information‘s Bureau of Motion Pictures reviewed the picture and for these and other racial characterizations recommended that Lifeboat not be distributed overseas. An NAACP critique of the film condemned Lee’s role unequivocally although praising his performance. However the Baltimore Afro-American‘s review, while commenting on shortcomings regarding the character, praised both the performance and its role depiction. Historian Rebecca Sklaroff, while writing that Joe’s role was more “tokenistic” than black roles in the wartime films Sahara and Bataan, noted that Joe was also depicted as compassionate, dependable and heroic, the only cast member stepping forward to disarm the second German sailor rescued.
Critics praised the film’s acting, directing, and cinematography and noted with appreciation the lack of background music once the film proper begins. Still, studio executives, under pressure because of the controversies, decided to give the film a limited release instead of the wide release most of Hitchcock’s films received. Advertising for the film was also reduced, which resulted in the film’s poor box office showing when it was released in 1944.