“Lifeboat” was an experiment in the unity of space. An experiment in the same way that “Rope” (1948) and “Rear Window” were. The entire film takes place in a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. Hitchcock often liked to undertake technical challenges of the kind that this film’s production presented. But there was always an underlying dramatic component to his experiments in unity of time and space. The result in “Lifeboat” is a very pure dramatic film composed of vivid characterizations and interactions as the main narrative thrust.
The film opens with an American liner going down as the result of a German torpedo. The German vessel goes down too, and when we first see a procession of inanimate objects floating in the ocean in the opening shots, they are objects from both ships. Everyday objects packed with significance, as tended to be the case in Hitchcock’s work. As the camera travels down this row of objects, we first see a Red Cross box. This box represents the Army nurse Ms. Mackenzie, who will be one of the wreck survivors able to make her way onto the lifeboat. Next we see apples floating by, almost a prescient taunt aimed at the extreme hunger our survivors will soon face on the lifeboat. Then, we see a piece of luggage. This luggage represents Constance Porter, the high society journalist and first survivor on the boat. Connie Porter makes it a point to hang onto her sole possessions during her travails on the lifeboat. This desperate attempt to cling onto what belongings she has left is also a desperate attempt to cling onto her faltering sense of self.
Next, we see a copy of New Yorker magazine floating by. The top hat-wearing aristocratic figure on the cover represents Charles D. Rittenhouse, a business-minded survivor from the well-to-do set. The deck of cards floating by prefigures the manner in which the lifeboat survivors amuse themselves; particularly Rittenhouse and John Kovac, a working class crewman of Czech descent. The minstrel show program that floats by next serves as an oblique reference to Joe, the black steward who joins the lifeboat survivors with a woman named Mrs. Higley and her baby (the baby is represented by the infant bottle floating by which Connie attempts to shoot a picture of; when Kovac breaks that bottle in order to prevent Connie from profiting in such a base way, it prefigures the baby’s death). Spoons and a checkerboard float by next. Finally, a German corpse drifts by. Of course, this corpse symbolizes Willy, the German U-boat captain who makes it onto the lifeboat much to the consternation of his fellow travelers. This corpse also prefigures Willy’s fate.
The lifeboat itself is the key structuring motif in the film. It is slowly transformed from a stark vessel into a rudimentary and homely dwelling. A place of dwelling that takes a major beating throughout the film, yet survives. Just as the boat is slowly transformed, so is Connie Porter. The personal items that she defines herself by are slowly stripped away, just as her personality itself is flayed to the core. First, she notices a run in her stockings, which upsets her. She then loses her camera, and the priceless footage within it that detailed the wrecking of the ship. Next, she loses her typewriter, which traveled with her across the world and back. Then, in a powerful storm, she loses her suitcase (but manages to save her comb and lipstick). Finally, she loses her Cartier bracelet; a bracelet that took her from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side; a bracelet that not only gave her upward social mobility, but also changed those around her. Fitting that she loses the bracelet to a fish in her last ditch effort to stave off starvation. Fitting, but perhaps necessary, since she found life intolerable without it. The same bracelet prevented her from finding love, as Kovac can hardly look at her while she’s wearing it.
Note how the moment Connie cozies up to Kovac in an attempt to make a connection with him, she takes out her lipstick and writes the initials “C.P.” on his chest. The initials have company, as Kovac displays all of his love conquests in tattoo form across his chest. But “C.P.” is a typical Hitchcockian double entendré. Not only does it refer to Connie’s initials, but it’s also an acronym for the Communist Party. Kovac has been labeled a socialist from the beginning of the film, most notably when Connie takes a shot at him, after he belittles her mink coat, by saying she thought the Comintern was dissolved (which actually did happen in 1943, when this film was shot). Of course, Kovac stands in opposition to Rittenhouse, a born capitalist and bourgeois society member who even mentions that he has the power and means to buy and sell Kovac a million times over, while Kovac extols the virtues of union action to him.
“Lifeboat” is a metaphor for the world at large during the time of World War II. Each survivor is meant to symbolize a particular segment of society. The film is also allegorical in that the members of the lifeboat must set aside their petty differences for the greater good of not only survival, but to defeat the German presence symbolized by Willy. The film was a call to arms of sorts for a world that had not yet figured out a way to overcome German aggression.
Note the beautiful shot when the survivors bury Mrs. Higley’s dead baby at sea. Joe says a prayer for the dead child, and we see his face in profile on frame right by the darkness of the night. Beyond him are the darkened shapes of the other survivors, lit faintly by the distant stars as the boat seems to float off into the cloudy heavens. It’s easily one of the more transcendent shots in all of Hitchcock’s cinema. It almost feels as if the boat is slowly traveling into another world. Note that when Willy is killed, the deathblow is delivered with a heavy shoe; a shoe that belonged on the injured survivor Gus’ foot, before his leg had to be amputated. Willy performed the amputation procedure in an effort to save him from gangrene, only to later push the miserable and crippled Gus off the boat and to his doom. Willy dying as a result of being pummeled by Gus’ shoe seems to be one of those dramatically fit and satisfying deaths that Hitchcock excelled in and often afforded his characters as a gesture of mercy.
By the end of the film, we are left where we began. We see another boat being bombed. This time it’s a German boat, and Allies do the bombing. There’s a wreck. A German survivor climbs aboard, and promptly turns on the rest of the survivors by threatening them with a gun. Connie reverts back to her superficial ways, frantically tending to her appearance so that her rescuers won’t find her unattractive. Rittenhouse also immediately says that he’s back in business, and makes calculations in his head about tax savings and other financial concerns. So the film moves in a circular pattern. Not much changes, and the survivors will be doomed to repeat past mistakes while attempting to move forward. This isn’t a particularly downbeat Hitchcock film as life is ultimately affirmed, but the ending is definitely a cynical one. Unsurprising when one considers the manner in which Hitchcock viewed and related to the world around him. “Lifeboat” is a powerful, distilled artistic representation of that famous jaundiced gaze. It’s another jewel in this amazing artist’s crown, buried under the dazzling light of the many others.