Lifeboat (1944) was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s many experiments with space and location. The film is set against the background of World War II and takes place entirely on a lifeboat. Lifeboat is an exercise in close-ups and restricted space; while many films made extensive use of close-ups as a way of getting closer to the action, this style was also a precursor for the coming of television in the 1950s. The film, which features no musical score and was filmed entirely in a studio, required extensive pre-production for the design of its shots. The production utilized four lifeboats; one for rehearsals, one for the studio’s water tanks and two separate boats for close-ups and long shots.
Lifeboat features archetypal characters and is meant to be a microcosm of the war. In essence, the film pins its focus on the confrontation of two worlds, the Allies and the Axis. The film first introduces fashion writer Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), in formal wear, as she sits alone in the lifeboat. This space then welcomes the rest of the players. These characters arrive in intervals; seaman John Kovac (John Hodiak), who quickly assumes the role of leader; radio operator Stanley Garett (Hume Cronyn); millionaire Charles S. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) and injured sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix); Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) and her baby and the ship’s steward George “Joe” Spencer; and finally, Nazi naval officer Willy (Walter Slezak). The film attempts to portray these characters as a microcosm -- poor and rich, working class and upper class, and those who make up the war. In the course of the film, we also see the departure of several of these characters; we discover that Mrs. Higley’s baby is actually dead; Mrs. Higley herself later commits suicide; Gus drowns after being pushed off the boat; and Willy is killed by those who remain.
Lifeboat is a masterwork in framing and blocking. In our diagram of the lifeboat, we focused on the scene where Wally is thrown overboard. This scene is the one that the film continuously builds towards. These characters, which resemble a pack of dogs, finally kill the man that they had been increasingly suspicious of. This frame, along with the positioning of the characters, visually
communicates their characteristics. The frame starts on five of the characters -- everyone except for Joe -- as they all settle into place after throwing Willy off the boat. The fresh-faced Alice leans back on the boat, her head in the sky, as she contemplates her behavior. Kovac, leans in with his head to the water, as his body language emphasizes his position of power. Rittenhouse has sunken down, defeated and aged. Constance is hunched over, her hair covering her face, an emotional wreck. Stanley looks on, helpless and riddled with uncertainty. The camera then moves back and reveals Joe, the only one who didn’t participate in the killing, as he stands separated from the others.