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Alfred Hitchcock
Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee
Writing Credits:
John Steinbeck (story), Jo Swerling

Six men and three women - against the sea and each other.

Based on a story by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat tells of the desperate struggle for survival of a group of people whose boat was torpedoed by a German U-boat during the Second World War. In this gripping character study about eight diverse survivors, tensions mount after a Nazi is brought aboard. Lifeboat is an unusual yet thrilling film from Alfred Hitchcock.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Stereo
English Monaural

Runtime: 96 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 10/18/2005

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Drew Casper
• “The Making of Lifeboat” Featurette
• Still Gallery
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Lifeboat: Special Edition (1944)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 25, 2005)

For an unusual drama set – and filmed – during World War II, we head to 1944’s Alfred Hitchcock flick Lifeboat. The flick offers an allegorical look at the war as well as a tight tale of survivial. At the film’s start, a Nazi U-boat sinks an Allied steamer. We see famous journalist Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) on board a lifeboat, and others come to join her. First we meet John Kovac (John Hodiak), a worker in the ship’s engine room. He spars a bit with Constance, as he sees her as selfish and thoughtless.

Soon more folks arrive on the lifeboat. These survivors include wealthy Charles D. “Ritt” Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), workers Garrett “Sparks” Stanley (Hume Cronyn), Gus Smith (William Bendix) and George “Joe” Spencer (Canada Lee), and young mother Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel). Two of the participants have immediate problems. Gus got wounded in the attack and has a bad leg. Mrs. Higgins has her baby with her, but the kid didn’t survive. Previously shell-shocked, she was already emotionally distraught, and the demise of her child sends her around the bend.

Enough potential tension exists among this octet, but matters intensify with another arrival: Willi (Walter Slezak), one of the crew on the Nazi vessel that torpedoed the boat. Kovac doesn’t want to allow him onboard, but the others determine that they must do so to follow international law.

From there the movie launches into frequent conflicts. Tension remains over Willi’s presence, especially when he tries to give advice on the lifeboat’s course. Other interpersonal issues interfere as well while we watch these folks attempt to survive until they can be rescued.

Many Hitchcock movies feature dense, complex narratives. Not so in the case of Lifeboat, possibly his most basic tale. It’s a movie TV Guide could synopsize quite easily: “Survivors of sunken ship attempt to survive on a small boat”. I prefer my longer synopsis, but that one says most of what you really need to know.

Lifeboat also features an intensely simple set. The entire thing takes place on the boat itself. We don’t cut to relatives back home or see the efforts of rescue workers. The movie lives and dies on that little boat.

Don’t take the simplicity of Lifeboat as a negative. Instead, it functions as one of the movie’s strengths. Hitchcock’s refusal to ever leave the boat adds a strong layer of claustrophobia to the tale. Even during quieter moments, that feeling of tension remains. We never get a respite from the survivors’ plight; we’re stuck out there in the Atlantic with them.

I will complain about Hitchcock’s decision to shoot the movie in a studio, however. Rarely does Lifeboat actually look like it was filmed in its natural environment. There’s a sense of artifice that occasionally proves off-putting and distances us from the story. You want to tell the survivors to stop griping – if you’re hungry, get off the boat and walk to the commissary.

But that feeling doesn’t manifest itself frequent. Despite the artificial look of the film, I still buy into it. It works because Hitchcock milks the tension and claustrophobia for all they’re worth. The movie lacks any score, so we’re stuck with dialogue and the sounds of the sea. This contributes to the realism, as we rarely get an impression of anything that would remind us this is just a movie.

While I wouldn’t classify Lifeboat as one of Hitchcock’s greatest movies, it certainly stands as a very good one. Occasionally we greet some awkward dialogue or artificial situations, but the movie usually avoids those and manages to infuse itself with a feeling of surprising realism. It offers a tense, tight experience.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C/ Bonus B-

Lifeboat appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. After a rocky start, the picture quickly improved.

The first reel of Lifeboat looked simply atrocious. The image was very dense with grain, though I admit I found it tough to tell how much of the problem came from grain and how much may have been smoke on the set. Since the issue cleaned up abruptly, I think it was grain, but it remained difficult to tell.

Many other defects cropped up during the first reel. The movie looked soft and muddy, with inky blacks and poor contrast. Source flaws included specks, marks, scratches, lines, blotches and spots. These created quite a few distractions and made the film almost unwatchable.

Happily, once the flick moved past its first 10 minutes, it looked much better. Sharpness immediately improved. An occasional soft element appeared, but the movie mostly came across as tight and well-defined. (As usual for a Hitchcock flick, shots of leading lady Bankhead were intentionally soft, so I didn’t factor those as a problem.) I noticed no jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement appeared absent.

Source flaws decreased dramatically after the first act. I still saw the occasional speck or line, but those were reasonably infrequent. Blacks became nicely dark, and shadows were appropriately smooth and concise. I really couldn’t complain about the movie after the first 10 minutes. That section looked so terrible that I felt I couldn’t give the transfer a grade above a “B-“, but if I dropped the first reel from consideration, I’d award the image at least a “B” and maybe even a “B+”. Most of Lifeboat offered satisfying visuals.

While not poor, the stereo soundtrack of Lifeboat seemed more mediocre. Fox just loves their stereo remixes of mono sources. I’m usually not wild about them. At best they’re minor enhancements of the mono tracks, and at worst, they’re muddy and distorted.

I didn’t mind the stereo mix of Lifeboat, largely because I thought it was stereo in name only. If any real expansion of the audio to the sides occurred, I didn’t notice it. Lifeboat doesn’t exactly offer an auditory extravaganza. It’s a simple affair and worked perfectly well within the monaural spectrum. A few effects may have moved gently toward the sides, but I can’t recall anything notable.

Audio quality was acceptable for a 60-year-old movie and no better. Speech created some concerns. I had a few problems with intelligibility, though not many; I usually found it easy to understand what the folks said. Nonetheless, sibilance and edginess popped up frequently, as the lines often appeared brittle. Effects fared a little better. They were fairly thin and wan, but they demonstrated decent clarity and lacked distortion. Music played virtually no role in the film; after the opening credits, we didn’t hear score again until the close. Overall, this track was listenable but nothing special.

When we move to the DVD’s extras, we start with an audio commentary from film historian Dr. Drew Casper. He presents a running, screen-specific chat. Casper covers some of the usual topics typical for this sort of track, but he adds an unusual level of depth. That comes from the amount of time during which he interprets the movie’s characters and themes; he really digs into those areas with gusto. He also goes over standard subjects like cast and crew biographies, the movie’s development and path to the screen, Hitchcock’s directorial style and his wartime efforts, politics and relationships on the set, censorship and reactions to the film.

On the negative side, Casper goes silent a little too much of the time. More than a few moderately extended gaps pop up here. However, Casper launches into his subjects with such gusto that the dear air causes few problems. He offers a nice examination of the film and its themes along with interpretation and enough concrete data to give us a solid background. This comes out as a solid discussion.

The Making of Lifeboat lasts 19 minutes and 57 seconds. It offers movie snippets, archival materials and comments from Casper, Hitchcock’s daughter Pat and his granddaughter Mary Stone, and Library of America editor Robert DeMott. We get notes about World War II’s impact on Hitchcock and his career at the time, the genesis of the movie’s story, John Steinbeck’s involvement and the tale’s various iterations, casting, sets and storyboards, complications during the shoot, Hitchcock’s cameo, editing and Daryl F. Zanuck’s interference, and the film’s reception.

Some of this material repeats from Casper’s commentary, but the show wraps it up into a neat package. It also emphasizes the flick’s nuts and bolts and leaves out Casper’s interpretation, so it’s a good summary for folks who just want to hear about those issues. It’s a tight little piece.

The DVD ends with a Still Gallery. This breaks into five domains. “Advertising Lifeboat” offers text that lets us know what we’ll find, while images show up in “Newspaper Ads” (19 screens), “Newspaper Articles” (16), “Display Accessories” (13), and “Theater Promotions and Contests” (14). These offer a lot of interesting materials and form a good collection of stills.

Although not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known works, 1944’s Lifeboat holds up well after all these decades. It offers an interesting allegory for World War II but also works as a claustrophobic character-based thriller even without those notions. After a rocky start, the DVD’s image looks quite good, and the audio always seems adequate. The package rounds out with an insightful audio commentary and some other good extras. Lifeboat earns my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2105 Stars Number of Votes: 19
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