Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Apr 04, 2017 Web Exclusive
Released in January of 1944, when the outcome of World War II was still far from certain, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was a bold and divisive film. Although it would go on to earn him his second of five unsuccessful Best Director nominations, Hitchcock’s film was slammed by critics who were put off by its sympathetic portrayal of a German soldier and lack of obvious patriotic fervor. Kino Lorber’s new 4K Blu-ray is another step on the long road of positive reappraisal the film has enjoyed since its inauspicious debut.
Lifeboat was the first of Hitchcock’s four “single set” films, followed by Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Although Rope and its one-take conceit made for the most high-concept of these cinematic bottle episodes, Lifeboat presented its own challenges, depicting the efforts of nine people to survive in a forty-foot lifeboat after their steamer ship is sunk by a Nazi U-boat in the North Atlantic. Working from a treatment by John Steinbeck based on his story of the same name, Hitchcock found himself unable to indulge in many of the tropes and tricks that had already made him one of the most noted auteurs in Hollywood. Making excellent use of overlapping dialogue and slow zoom-ins and outs, Hitchcock keeps all nine characters in play and makes the most of the minimal space the premise affords him.
It seems ironic that Lifeboat was considered insufficiently patriotic at the time of its release. It’s easily one of the most humanist films in Hitchcock’s long oeuvre of cynical murder mysteries and bleak psychological dramas. Although it begins quite grimly, even going so far as to feature a dead baby, Steinbeck’s story takes the various ideologies that were jockeying for power during the war and distills them into the various characters on the boat. There’s John Hodiak as Kovacs, the fiery Chicago mechanic with a distain for wealth that borders on socialism. There’s former werewolf-of-London Henry Hull as C.J. Rittenhouse, the privileged, paternalistic capitalist. There’s all-time great character actor William Bendix as Smith, the lovable, blue-collar lug who’s worried that his gangrene will cramp his style as a dancer. There’s Walter Slezak as Willi, the friendly and hyper-competent German who pulls double-duty as a prisoner and in-all-but-name leader of the survivors. Anchoring the film as the ostensible lead is Tallulah Bankhead as Connie Porter, a high-society reporter and woman of the world. Connie is cut from the same cloth as Rick Blaine in Casablanca: the tough, isolationist American who comes to realize that working with others for a cause greater than themselves is the only way forward. This arc manifests itself in a hilarious running joke in which Connie’s various valuables and tools of her trade are accidentally knocked into the ocean.
Although it does the rear-projection shots of the open seas no favors, Kino Lorber’s new 4K transfer of Lifeboat does wonders for the performances of the nine actors, providing an added sense of realism and detail to the films small character touches. In particular, a scene in which Connie playfully writes her initials on Kovacs’ bare chest feels far more intimate than one would expect from a film in 1944. In addition to the new transfer, the Blu-ray also features a new commentary track by film historian Tim Lucas. Ported over from a previous release are a brief but informative making-of documentary and a second commentary track by the ever-enthusiastic Drew Casper, a film studies professor at USC.
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