Lifeboat (1944): Classic Movie Review


USA 1944, 96 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.Written by Jo Swerling, based on a novella by John Steinbeck. Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, Hume Cronyn, John Hodiak and Henry Hull.

Plot summary: After a nearly fatal U-boat attack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a disparate group of survivors has to decide whether or not to trust the enemy whose offer to help may or may not reflect disputable intent.

Review: There are film enthusiasts who worship directors for their ability to bring stories to life on screen and make them memorable beyond their own lifetime and momentum. Welles, Wilder, Capra, Sirk, Lang, Houston, Wyler, Cukor, Ford, Mankiewicz, Minnelli to just name a few, each name standing for his own precept of quality, his own formula to narrative veracity. Alfred Hitchcock, no doubt, belongs to that eclectic league of masterminds whose style outlived its time and entered the halls of classic fame. With success stories such as The 39 Steps, Rear Window and Vertigo under his belt, Hitchcock is still remembered by film fans around the globe and frequently paid homage to by contemporary filmmakers. Although not peaking until the 1950s, his career was multifaceted and long-lived, spanning from the mid-1920s to the mid-’70s.

In 1943, he took on a project called Lifeboat, a story originally based on an unpublished novella by John Steinbeck. Set in the midst of World War II, the tale brought up the blurry lines between decency and necessity for survival in times of war. Shot with only 10 actors in a limited setting, Hitchcock turned the already dramatic plot into a claustrophobic parable about the complexities of human behavior under extreme circumstances. Unafraid of addressing cruelties and moral ambiguities, Lifeboat was released on January 28, 1944 and won instant disapproval by a number of critics who frowned on the supposedly favorable depiction of German characters. Despite this controversy, however, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards and brought Tallulah Bankhead a well-deserved New York Film Critics Circle Award for her memorable performance as pert journalist Connie Porter. In 1950, Screen Director’s Playhouse turned Lifeboat into a successful radio play with and introduction by Hitchcock and Bankhead as his acclaimed leading lady.

For Hitchcock fans and classic movie buffs, the film does not only offer a brilliant ensemble but also a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat through the whole 96 minutes. Designed as an intimate play, Lifeboat is a real gem for anyone who likes to savor topnotch acting and tangent dialog. Praised by critics today, Lifeboat is now available on DVD with a delicious two-part interview with the Master of Suspense himself.

Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.


  • John Hutchinson

    Where does Hitchcock make his “appearance” in Lifeboat?

    • Laura-Leigh

      Wasn’t he a corpse drifting by in the water?!

      • Wayne P.

        No, but that wouldve been an even better idea, even if much more obvious! 😉

    • Wayne P.

      His face is on the copy of the newsapaper being read by one of the people in the boat during the film. If am not mistaken, I think that article in the paper had something to do with “Re-ducto…” a weight loss gimmick at the time, perhaps. Hitch was always poking fun at himself in his cameos and trailers!

  • John Hutchinson

    Yes, Wayne, his photo was in the paper in an advertisement for weight loss. As I recall Henry Hull was holding the paper checking stock market.

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  • Don K

    It’s been driving me nuts for years !!!… Does anyone remember the remake of, ” Lifeboat ” ?
    Unless I was dreaming, I think there was a remake starring, amoung others, Martin Sheen. I know darn well I saw it and as for a remake of a great classic, it was very well made too and a great movies. But it’s not listed anywhere that I’ve seen. One of Sheens earlys and I though he was teriffic.

    • Wayne P.

      You were right! Sheen was in a 1975 TV movie called The Last Survivors, based on an 1841 court case, US vs. Holmes. It got mixed reviews on IMDB but is not actually considered a re-make of Hitch’s classic, Lifeboat.