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A review of the Masters of Cinema DVD and Blu-ray set, currently £23 on amazon.
Released in 1944, this is one of Alfred Hitchcock's less well known films, and it was a bit of a surprise to see it come out on Blu-ray, especially before some of the more famous classics.
An American ship is sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic. A few survivors drift in a lifeboat, hoping for rescue. The U-boat itself was sunk during the battle, and the German captain, Willie, also finds his way onto the lifeboat. He schemes and misdirects in an attempt to get them all captured by his villainous colleagues.
Lifeboat is an odd film, the first in which Hitchcock limited himself to one single set. It's a lot more effective than his subsequent efforts in that direction - Rope collapses under the weight of its own format and Dial M For Murder is a rather drab story. Only Rear Window is better, and it's arguable whether that's really a single-set film.
Although suspenseful, the film isn't the kind of edge-of-seat stuff that Hitchcock was best at. There's never any real doubt that the characters will pull through - a drama in which a lifeboat full of people slowly died of thirst would have been unthinkable in 1944. But Lifeboat succeeds because it has a rare emotional honesty about it for Hitchcock. There are no suavely playful heroes here - Connie the photojournalist starts out that way, a bit, but she becomes more real in the face of adversity. It actually deals with the effect the war has on people, and does so in a reasonably realistic way, as with the shell-shocked mother whose baby has died. It's less fun than thrillers like Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, which also have Nazi villains, but it's more honest and engaging.
The film was criticised for making Willie too effective compared the the American and English characters. It was seen as showing democracy as flawed. The single-minded Nazi outwits the gullible democrats with their insistence on fair play and group discussion. I think the film is saying pretty clearly that it's far better to be a decent human being than a Nazi brute, and that, for all its flaws, at least democracy isn't murderously barbaric like fascism. I guess I can see how people might have felt differently while the war was still ongoing, though.
The people on the boat are set up as a little microcosm of Allied society. There are the rich - the ghastly photojournalist Connie and the industrialist. And there are poor working slobs like the injured Gus and the rather tiresome hero, Kovac. There's a nurse and a cockney and a black guy - the way the latter is presented can't help but feel a bit patronising, especially the bit where Connie implies he's lost without someone to look up to. Oh, and he's a reformed criminal and is innately musical. That's quite a few stereotypes crammed into the one character. But it's not as racist as some films, and he's among the most likable and humane of the characters.
The acting is extremely good, with one unfortunate exception. Tallulah Bankhead is probably better known for her flamboyant name and the faint whiff of scandal that still attaches to her. She's fine as Connie when she just has to rattle off waspish one-liners, but when she has her various moments of high emotion she does far less well. This is a shame, as without them it's impossible to like her character in the slightest. She just comes across as irritating.
Everyone else is fine, but Hume Cronyn (Canadian) isn't much better at a cockney accent than Dick van Dyke. The hapless cockney mother's accent soon grates, too: "Where's me byeby?" There are two real standouts in the cast. William Bendix, a great tough guy in various film noir and war movies, is heartbreaking as the wounded soldier Gus. And Walter Slezak is exceptional as Willie, the chubby, cheerful, but murderously single-minded Nazi.
It's made remarkably well, as you'd expect. Hitchcock has risen to the challenge he's set himself and found interesting ways to frame shots in the tiny set (and he rarely pulls back for any kind of long shot, probably because most of the sea we see is back projected. There is a terribly unconvincing starry sky backdrop in one sequence).
It's impressively nasty for its time, although there are obvious limits to what it can get away with. I suspect that people who'd been marooned at sea for several weeks (I'm not sure how long it's actually meant to be) would look a lot rougher than this bunch do, but at least the film remembers that the men's beards have to grow, and to give everyone chapped lips.
And probably no one really wants to see survivors have to start eating one another's legs or going slowly insane - or at least, not in a 1940s Hitchcock movie. Lifeboat never feels like it gets its due share of praise, being considered something of an oddity. But some of Hitchcock's best films - Rear Window, Psycho - are similarly experimental, we've just forgotten that because they've been absorbed so well into the mainstream. Lifeboat is well worth checking out, anyway.
The picture quality on the Blu-ray is good, although there's very noticeable damage to the film (looks like the enamel's gone all blotchy), which is particularly noticeable in the first ten minutes or so. Other than that, though, it's a good, rich picture which has plenty of grain and doesn't seem to have been artificially sharpened.
There's also a DVD version. As ever, this seems monumentally pointless. It looks fine, but why is it there? Why not just sell them separately, so those who want one don't have to pay for both?
As extras we get a 20-minute making of, which is OK but only has contributions from three people (one of whom is Hitchcock's daughter). There's also a 12-minute audio bit of Francois Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock about Lifeboat, which is interesting but a bit ponderous, as everything has to be translated for each man before they can respond to it.
There are also two short films Hitchcock made in 1944 to be shown in Free French territories. They're both in French with subtitles, and are among the most obscure things Hitchcock ever made.
Bon Voyage tells of a Scottish airman being helped to escape by the Resistance, although there are some deeply unlikely plots twists. It's surprisingly harsh, and has a kind of Rashomon vibe, as events described by the escaped airman (the film is told in flashback) prove to have other, more sinister meanings later on. It's realistic that the airman's French isn't very good, and there's a Frenchwoman with an actual moustache (perhaps that's only visible in HD, I don't know). It's quite entertaining.
Aventure Malagache sees a wily lawyer on Madagascar (then a French colony) outwit his Vichy enemies and set up a propaganda radio station. The film is allegedly based on a true story, and the main actor, Jules François Clermont, is the guy to whom it actually happened. He's an engaging fellow, and there's one hilarious moment when a collaborator, hoping to prove his pro-Allied credentials, pulls a large portrait of Queen Victoria out of a cupboard and hangs it on his wall. But the film is light on incident. Bon Voyage feels like it could have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but Aventure Malagache is a curio at best. Still, it's nice they're on the disk, and both look pretty decent in HD.
An informative booklet (focusing more on what the films mean than on how they were made) rounds out the package.
It might not be Hitchcock's best ever film, but it's a lot more interesting than I remembered it being. What it lacks in suspense it makes up in humanity, and it's the closest Hitchcock came to making a proper war film.