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LIFEBOAT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Sleazak, John Hodiak, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee
Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Audio:  Dolby Mono, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Commentary, Making-Of Featurette, Photo Gallery
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  October 18, 2005

"Dying together is even more personal than living together."

Film ****

Alfred Hitchcock was seemingly always looking for that next cinematic boundary to push, and with Lifeboat, he did it by confining rather than expanding the canvas.  The whole movie takes place in a small boat adrift in the Atlantic during World War II, with a cast of striking characters and a storyline that pushes the notion of survival to harsh limits.

Based on the story by John Steinbeck, Hitch's film explores the interrelations between some widely varied people who end up in a lifeboat together after a sea battle left an Allied ship and a German U-boat destroyed.  Legendary stage star Tallulah Bankhead is at her finest as an aristocratic, materialistic reporter who frequently surprises her boatmates and we, the audience, with her strong touches of humanity at unexpected moments.

With her are some Navy men, including one with a wounded leg becoming increasingly problematic, a young nurse, a black steward, and...surprisingly enough, a shipwrecked Nazi, who doesn't speak English.  Facing death in the open sea, can people put aside their philosophical differences long enough to survive?  That's just one of the movie's many suspenseful questions, and the answers aren't always what you think.

The plot is easily sketched...in fact, to reveal more would be to hit upon surprise twists in the narrative that I could never deprive of a first-time viewer.  Suffice to say that within confined spaces, Hitchcock serves up some of his best technical work as a director.  Over the 90 minute running time, you'll find that shots within the boat don't really repeat.  He finds new and better ways to use his camera, and the constant motion of the waves keep images from becoming static.

But the screenplay by Jo Swerling has to be credited too.  Put a few people in a boat in the middle of nowhere, and maybe nothing happens.  But the script, based on Steinbeck's story, crafts intriguing chemistries between the characters, and turns a simple story of survival into an all out drama on the sea.

Ms. Bankhead is a real joy...she didn't do many film roles, but apparently she was Hitchcock's first choice as star for this picture.  Her radiance helps anchor the situational drama, and her ability to find the human being inside of a fur coat and jewelry really helps to propel the story.

Sometimes survival isn't the basest of human instincts.  What surfaces in the face of doom can sometimes be more alarming than death itself.  Lifeboat masterfully explores that situation, and the result is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most unforgettable films.

BONUS TRIVIA:  How does Hitch make his famous cameo in a movie that takes place in a lifeboat on open water?  Here's a hint:  read all about it.

Video **

Not quite what I was hoping...Lifeboat is a 60 year old film, and pretty much looks it.  The black and white transfer seemed in need of a little restoration work.  Spots and marks are frequently noticeable, as is a bit of grain and flicker.  Images are generally sharp and contrast levels good, so the disc is watchable, but not exemplary.

Audio **

You can choose between original mono or newer stereo tracks.  I didn't notice much difference.  The audio is fair but shows its age with a little noise here and there.  Dialogue is generally well rendered, but the effects and music score don't add up to much dynamic range.

Features **1/2

Film professor Drew Casper offers an insightful commentary that deals with Hitchcock himself, the actors, the characters and evolution of the story.  Students will definitely learn a thing or two from his thoughts.  There is also a new making-of documentary, which is a treat, and a still photo gallery.

Summary:  

Lifeboat was one of only a small number of Hitchcock's American productions that I had never seen, and now that it's on DVD, I have to say it was worth the wait.

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