Of Hitchcock's 'war' movies, only Lifeboat actually depicts warfare. Ships are shelled and sunk, and several among the survivors on the lifeboat are in the Navy. With the entire story taking place on a single, small set, Lifeboat is nearly unique among Hitchcock films (Rope is the other exception) for its similarity to a play.
The 'disaster' movie genre would not be launched for another quarter century with Airport. Yet Lifeboat showed Irwin Allen how it was done. Put a cross-section of people together under great stress and with their lives at stake. Create further conflict by adding a villain (the German U-boat captain) to the passenger list, and then subject the crew to his treacherous authority. False hopes are raised and extinguished, but an unhappy ending is unthinkable. In this case, it would even insult patriotism.
Partly because other films have followed the formula of Lifeboat, the story no longer seems fresh. Most of the characters are pidgeonholed promptly, and their intense arguments and indecision (as well as their lack of co-operation) becomes an aggravation.
Hot-tempered socialist Kovac (John Hodiak) is downright obnoxious, which in long-standing cinematic tradition makes him sexually irresistable to alpha female Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a cynical sensationalist reporter. Kovac is perhaps a stand-in for John Steinbeck, who is credited with the original story. Meanwhile, milquetoast Stanley (Hume Cronyn) wins angelic broken-hearted nurse (Mary Anderson).
The fantastically wealthy and witty industrialist Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) gets nothing except for ironic gambling debts to Kovac. Joe (Canada Lee) is a pacifist black who asks for nothing beyond his own survival, and expects even less. William Bendix again plays a good-natured but dumb oaf, although his serious leg wound adds further urgency for the survivors to attain rescue.
The arrival of a German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) creates dilemmas for the crew. Is he an enemy soldier or a war criminal? Should he be arrested, or even murdered? Can we turn to him for help, or is he a despicable and treacherous Nazi? Does the latter question even need to be asked?
A jolly but sneaky soul, the Captain seems to be the only one on the boat with a plan. He is also the only one willing to row. If the confused survivors are intended to represent the Allies, I'm sure glad that it was Eisenhower who planned the D-Day invasion and not any of these fellows.
Look fast for Hitchcock's cameo, in a whimsical weight-loss newspaper ad.
Based on a story by John Steinbeck, noted screenwriter Ben Hecht was allegedly called in at the last minute to improve the script. Bankhead won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle, who must have known that it would be the only notable screen role in the career of the famed stage actress. Lifeboat was nominated for three Oscars: Best Director, Best Black and White Cinematography (Glen MacWilliams) and Best Original Story (Steinbeck).