Thanks to a new Blu-ray release of Lifeboat, a new generation of film fans will experience the work of several masters in cinematic drama. Directed by the legendary horror maven Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Steinbeck, and boasting three nominations for Academy Awards, the film brings the claustrophobia of other Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Rope. Here, the action takes place in a lifeboat, out in the open but far from rescue.
What happens is a sociological experiment of epic, wartime proportions, as Steinbeck (previously a war correspondent) spins a tale of horror in the midst of the norm – or the horror of human decision-making in the midst of trauma. Our focus is on the people in the lifeboat, mostly American and British individuals who were traveling for different reasons, who remain after a German U-boat sunk their ship. [The U-boat sunk as well, and the lifeboat survivors end up taking in the U-boat captain.]
While the inhabitants of the lifeboat are of different nationalities, races, sexes, religions, and walks of life, one might hope that their common situation would bring them together. And it does… up to a point. Soon, the calamities that they experience pile up; there is not enough food or water, and they begin to seek salvation for themselves individually above all else. Like a good Agatha Christie yarn, not all of them will make it; but the audience is left to consider the question, “What do you do with people like that?” that is really aimed at us.
In reading more on the subject, it became clear that the racism considered here bothered Steinbeck – who wanted his name removed from the release – and remains something we’re all left to wrestle with. If life is the condition (not just stranding on a lifeboat), who is ‘in’ our group and who is ‘out’? Who is ‘we’ and who is ‘others’? Those are questions that Lifeboat wrestles with, as we consider our community, our neighbor, our planet. Hitchcock, as always, makes us think, and asks us to consider (here, in high definition) what values we put on human life and the decisions we make.