Lifeboat(Fox Home Entertainment 10.18.2005)
It's about fucking time! At last, the remaining sound film by the master, Alfred Hitchcock, comes to DVD courtesy of the folks at Fox Home Entertainment. This film, which tends to get the brush in most of the books I've read on Hitchcock, is nevertheless a masterpiece on a par with any of Hitch's best works and every time I see this film I'm drawn in by its alternately pessimistic and romantic take on human nature.
After being torpedoed by a German U-Boat during World War II (the film was made in 1944), the survivors of an American ship in the Atlantic converge into a cramped lifeboat, where the entirety of the film takes place. Hitchcock loved setting films in claustrophobic spaces (Rope, The Lady Vanishes, and Rear Window being some obvious examples besides this film) and relished the challenges of shooting without repeating camera angles and creating characters who would hold our attention despite the lack of new environments.
When a survivor from the German submarine (also apparently destroyed in the battle) happens aboard as well, a moral dilemma occurs. Should they kill him and throw him overboard or should they let him live because he is, after all, as much a human being as any of the Americans on board?
As played by Walter Slezak, the Nazi is one of a long line of sympathetic Hitchcock villains that makes this film stand out from other wartime films. Eschewing simple jingoism -- indeed, one of the American characters questions why anyone would want to kill anyone else -- Hitchcock is interested in what wartime psychology does to the democratic ideal. Since freedom and individuality are the American way, each of the allies has his or her own take on the situation, what should be done, and why.
As a result, there is an awful lot of bickering going on, fortified by class differences and the individual backgrounds of each character. The German, however, is more single-minded in purpose and, as a result, seems to handle the situation a little better. He manages to dispatch a few of the characters (a wounded soldier and a grieving mother who has recently lost her child) and is guiding the lifeboat, unbeknownst to the Americans, into Axis waters.
This moral ambiguity apparently landed the film in hot water, led to a poor showing at the box office, and its being buried in Hitchcock's body of work as a minor film, which, especially now, it is anything but. In the commentary track by USC professor Drew Casper, it is pointed out that several reviews of the film labeled it as a "recruitment film for the Nazis."
Fox delivers the film in a transfer that is very good for the most part (some inevitable signs of age are present, like spotting in certain areas, but I'm willing to cut them a little slack on this since the film is over 60 years old). The aforementioned commentary by Drew Casper is informative despite a few dead spots and is almost, but not quite, as good as his commentary track for Raoul Walsh's White Heat, released earlier this year.
A making-of documentary that runs a little under 20 minutes is also included and features interviews with Casper, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia (who never seems to tire of talking about her father's work), and granddaughter Mary. There's a sad lack of archival interviews or footage available, which weakens the featurette somewhat, but it's still worth watching if you enjoyed the film. And how can you not enjoy a film that is this damn great? -- Christopher Hyatt