A mid-career experiment from Alfred Hitchcock, this thriller takes place almost entirely on the lifeboat of the title. It’s not as claustrophobic as you might expect from the master of suspense; oddly, he makes time for not one but two romantic interludes. Still, this is one of his significant works, accented by wickedly effective insert shots and a handful of strong performances.
Tallullah Bankhead anchors the film as Constance Porter, a society journalist who is the first aboard the lifeboat after a German sub has torpedoed the Allied ship on which she had been traveling. Fur coat on her shoulders and hair perfectly in place, she somewhat reluctantly helps an oil-covered mechanic (John Hodiak) aboard when he comes swimming through the wreckage. Others soon join them, including a hysterical young mother (Heather Angel) and her infant; a willfully cheery seaman with a wounded leg (William Bendix); a plucky nurse (Mary Anderson); and a stalwart radio operator (Hume Cronyn). Last aboard is a German sailor (Walter Slezak) who may or may not be the captain of the sub that sunk them before it too went down.
Bankhead presides over all this as if she were hosting a lively dinner party.
Something of a morality play ensues as the survivors debate what to do with the German, who ends up coming in handy when the wounded seaman’s leg goes gangrenous and needs to be amputated. Hitchcock punctuates this moment with a mordant visual gag: the man’s now useless boot being tossed aside. Other directorial touches are more purely grim. When one of the members commits suicide by slipping over the side during the night, the others discover this in the morning by noticing a taut rope leading into the water (the other end is tied to the victim’s body).
Lest I’m making the movie sound too morbid, I should note that Bankhead – whose low voice is part bark and part purr – presides over all this as if she were hosting a lively dinner party rather than adrift at sea. This isn’t as jarring a juxtaposition in tone as it might seem, thanks to Hitchcock’s deft touch and Bankhead’s dry wit. Whenever things get too didactic in terms of moral debate, she steers things back onto a more purely entertaining course.