Lifeboat on Blu-ray & DVD

Shot and set during World War II, Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” follows the fortunes of ten or so survivors of a Nazi U-boat attack on an ocean liner. As the film opens, the still-smoking funnel of the doomed vessel sinks beneath the waves. One by one, bedraggled survivors clamber onboard the lifeboat, happy to still be alive but slowly coming to terms with their predicament. The boat is damaged and emergency supplies are low. No-one knows how long it will be until help arrives or which side of the conflict it will come from.

Matters are complicated by the arrival of a sailor from the German craft. Do they toss him straight back into the water, condemning him to almost certain death, or do they allow him to stay onboard, using up precious rations and risking sabotage? This and many other moral, psychological and physical challenges await the stricken survivors. They strike out for nearby Bermuda, but the chances of capture by a German ship are high.

Lifeboat on Dual Format Blu-ray & DVDEssentially the movie equivalent of a so-called TV ‘bottle episode’, “Lifeboat” is the very essence of economical and taut film-making. It is based on a specially commissioned novella by famous author John Steinbeck. Apart from one establishing shot, Hitchcock filmed the entire movie from within the boat set to keep it close and personal.

This is a character-based film with relatively little action or the breathless suspense normally associated with the legendary director. Of course, an underlying tension is present to do with depleting resources, suspicion amongst the passengers and the variable weather they are subjected to.

The cast is uniformly superb, and the characters generally evade the misfortune of becoming caricatures. Tallulah Bankhead (whose final role would be as The Black Widow in the 1960s Adam West Batman) headlines as photo-journalist Connie Porter. Unlike everyone else, Connie is fortunate enough to have got straight off the liner into the lifeboat with all of her precious belongings, including her camera, typewriter, fur coat and luggage.

The other, waterlogged survivors include badly injured crewman Gus (William Bendix), nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), engine-room operator Kovac (John Hodiak), wealthy industrialist, Mrs Higgins (Heather Angel), mother of a little baby and finally Willy (Walter Slezak), the German sailor.

The varying social statuses of the survivors initially drive a lot of the interplay between them, but as time passes it is fascinating to watch as they quickly realise that class and wealth mean nothing when it comes to survival at sea. Relevant skills and the ability to keep a level head in difficult situations come to the fore. Political outlooks do to still have a part to play though, and occasionally bubble to the surface with striking effect.

Connie is ostensibly the central character, though it is largely an ensemble piece. Amidst the stresses and strains onboard the lifeboat, an element of comedy runs through the movie as the rather prim journalist is gradually robbed of her belongings one way or another. At the same time, she comes to realise that possessions do not matter as much as survival and friendship.

Hitchcock keeps the picture feeling fresh and maintains interest by constantly varying the camera angles and shots, and the film crew does a fantastic job of convincing us that the actors are really at sea and not in a movie studio. The motion of the boat is ever-present, sometimes gentle, sometimes furious, spray and wind tease or batter the passengers, and the lighting perfectly matches the footage superimposed in the background. Make-up also compels us to believe that these people are becoming parched and sun-burnt through constant exposure to the elements.

The film is also kept buoyant thanks to a plot that mixes up its moral and physical challenges. As well as deciding the fate of the German, other conundrums include whether to amputate a gangrenous limb with decidedly makeshift equipment, who should lead the group, who should navigate and whether they should fight to keep everyone alive when circumstances lead one or more characters to want to go overboard.

“Lifeboat” might not be amongst Hitchcock’s most famous works but it is certainly a highly gripping and involving piece of cinema that comes strongly recommended. On Blu-ray, the new restoration is not quite as sharp or clear as some of Eureka’s other ‘Masters of Cinema’ releases, but it is undoubtedly a vast improvement over previous editions. Either way, one adjusts to the grain and noise and indeed it does not feel out of place given the setting of the movie.

Special features included in this dual-format release include:

  • New high-definition master, officially licensed from Twentieth Century Fox
  • New high-definition 1080p transfers of Hitchcock’s little-seen French-language 1944 wartime films, “Bon voyage” (26 minutes) and “Aventure malgache” (32 minutes) officially licensed from the British Film Institute
  • Optional English subtitles on all three films
  • 20-minute documentary on the making of ”Lifeboat”
  • 12-minute excerpt from the legendary 1962 audio interviews between Hitchcock and François Truffaut, discussing “Lifeboat” and the wartime shorts

PLUS: A 36-page booklet featuring new and exclusive essays on all three films by critics Bill Krohn, Arthur Mas, and Martial Pisani

The highlight for me is the slightly surreal Hitchcock/Truffaut audio-only discussion. Hitchcock’s delivery is very ponderous, presumably in part due to his need to wait for the translator to do their job, but one also senses a devious, playful quality. The making-of features his daughter and grand-daughter as well as experts on both the director and Steinbeck.

“Lifeboat" (1944) is out now on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD (both discs in one box), courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. The main feature has a running time of 98 minutes approx, carries a ‘PG’ certificate and retails for £19.99 (£29.99 in steelbook format), or less from www.culttvstore.com