Pop Theology contributor Wendy Arce reviews a Hitchcock classic, Lifeboat.
I recently saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and in spite of how sleepy the Bay Area’s latest heat wave made me feel, I found it to be a very interesting film on two dimensions. Cinematically, the film takes place in a forty-foot lifeboat after a German U-Boat sinks an American freighter during WWII. The survivors must find their way to safety in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, the story thickens as they take in the German U-Boat captain and introduces its second important dimension. The U.S. survivors must face the ethical issues of sharing with and caring for a human life versus maintaining a war posture and leaving the enemy for dead, afloat in the stormy Atlantic.

Although Lifeboat wasn’t well received in wartime U.S., Hitchcock demonstrates in this film his great vision and directorial ability. In spite of working in a tightly confined area (the lifeboat was reproduced to scale), Hitchcock makes each scene look different. In several moments, I even forgot that they were in such a confined space, but was quickly reminded when Hitchcock switched to a wide shot of the boat, reintroducing that sense of claustrophobia.   Though Hitchcock created the boat to scale, he also created portions of it separately for purposes of specific scenes and perspectives, for example with romantic scenes between Stanley (Hume Cronyn) and Alice (Mary Anderson) or Connie (Tallulah Bankhead) and Kovac (John Hodiak). Hitchcock even shows a downward angle of the boat to show the area under the planks where the survivors sought shelter from the sun.  Hitchcock turns what could be a boring film about a forty-foot lifeboat into a conglomeration of scenes that exhibit different angles, perspectives, backdrops and uses of props. Thus, he is able to bring this captivating story to the screen without boring us with the same visual images.

Along with these great cinematic effects, Hitchcock also offers an interesting commentary on human nature. These eight people trapped in a lifeboat face extreme conditions that can bring out either the best or worst in them. As the people gather towards the boat and pull survivors out of the water, they pull up the German captain (Walter Slezak). The ethical question becomes: do they leave him to die or take him in and share their limited resources? They decide to keep him as a prisoner of war, but do not know whether or not they can trust his apparent nautical know-how in taking them to safety.  Thus, they face another ethical question:  can they trust him to lead them to safety or will he lead them straight into enemy hands and turn them into prisoners of war?  After a storm pushes them off course, they opt to trust him, not know that he continuously rows them towards a Nazi supply ship. All the while, they face dehydration and starvation, with no means of acquiring fresh water or food. The German, however, who they already caught hiding a compass, also hides fresh water and energy pills. When one survivor, Gus (William Bendix), is pushed over by the German, the remaining six turn on him once again. Gus had a leg amputated on the lifeboat because of a spreading infection and was therefore vulnerable and slightly crazed by the extreme conditions they faced. Once they realized the German pushed Gus overboard and found out he hid water and nutrients from them, the remaining passengers enter a fit of rage and murder him, beating him mercilessly and throwing him into the Atlantic. His actions, and the extreme physical conditions they faced, drove them into hysterics in which they choose revenge and death over the earlier value they exhibited for human life.

The passengers lost hope as they drifted along the Atlantic Ocean, but once again, Hitchcock proves his talent. They continually row towards the Nazi supply ship, only to witness an American-launched attack. The supply ship goes down and once again, the six find another German survivor in the water. Although some want to kill him, due to the German captain’s earlier betrayal, others seek to help him. He asks: “Aren’t you going to kill me?” But they do not.  Alice tends to this wounds while they await rescue. This ethical dimension of Lifeboat gets to the heart of human nature.  What are we capable of doing to others? Under what circumstances will our values thrive or perish? What are our moral and ethical limitations?

In a perhaps unrelated and erroneous detail, the Nazi death scene reminded me of The Dark Knight. In Lifeboat, the “good” people turn on the “bad” and assert their judgment on him and his actions. In The Dark Knight, the Joker loads two ferryboats leaving Gotham City with explosives and places the triggers for each bomb in the opposite boat.  One boat carries convicted criminals while the second carries civilians, including a number of children. The Joker says that each group has the power to blow up the other, but if they do not act before midnight, he will detonate both sets of explosives. The civilians and convicts alike face a moral dilemma: kill or be killed. Like the situation in Lifeboat, the good people are faced with the decision of killing a boatload of convicts or waiting to die at the Joker’s hands if they do not act before midnight.  As a mother says: “They’ve (the convicts) have had their chance.” She and others argue that killing them would be no great societal loss, and by doing that, they would guarantee their own survival. In the end, however, neither convicts nor civilians wanted to have any more blood on their hands and exhibited a faith in humankind that they would keep each other safe.  They also proved the Joker wrong by demonstrating that people can still be good when faced with extreme situations.

These two scenes come from widely different contexts but are still comparable. They are both valuable expressions of how human beings choose between right and wrong, testing their limits as they find themselves in spectacular situations of life and death.

Lifeboat (96 mins) is on DVD and is rated PG.