We're not like you! You're made of iron, we're just flesh and blood! Hungry and thirsty flesh and blood!
Like Rope, this wartime Hitchcock effort sees the director thriving on the technical challenge of basing a film around a single location. The script from John Steinbeck maintains the character drama throughout, throwing in battles with the elements and thwarted plans to reach safe harbour. The characters need to be sufficiently compelling as the suspense element is limited by the scenario. Hitchcock was keen to do his patriotic duty during WWII, so it's ironic that some critics suggested the film was pro-Nazi in presenting a German character who was several steps ahead of his fellow survivors; the director's intention was for the lifeboat's occupants to represent the allies in a microcosm, and only by uniting could they defeat the more prepared and resilient enemy.
Tallulah Bankhead makes the most of the ostensible lead (certainly the only big name in the cast), a smart-mouthed, lusty photo-journalist. The first time we see her she is the sole occupant of the titular survival vessel, sat incongruously in her mink coat smoking a cigarette. She is in no doubt of her importance. Bankhead didn't go in for underwear; Hitchcock's reaction was "I don't know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing").
Of the rest of the cast the most variable is Hume Cronyn. His "English" accent must be one of the worst ever; it's hard to get past that to consider whether his performance is any good or not. Water Slezak's German, Willy, is the only actor who can match Bankhead for screen presence. Mary Anderson, a Fox contract-player, is a bit of a babe and seems an unlikely match for Cronyn (stressful environments and all that, I guess). William Bendix, John Hodiak, Canada Lee and Henry Hull are all solid.
Lee's African American character Joe is introduced with the cry of "Hey, Charcoal!" from Bankhead, making you wonder if the treatment of the character can only get worse from there. But for the most part he's written with more awareness than might have been expected for a film of this period. While he's introduced with a negative signifier (he was once a pickpocket), this skill proves vital as events unfold. At one point he expresses surprise that he would be asked for his vote on what to do, and later the other characters further betray their ignorance by showing their surprise at the photo of his wife and children.
The film is so technically accomplished that it smooths over some of the less credible aspects of the script. Most obvious is the amputation of a leg on a small boat in the middle of a storm with only a bottle of brandy as anaesthetic (I hardly think that when the victim comes round he will claim to feel "much better"). Some of Willy's actions probably don't stand much scrutiny in retrospect either (for someone with such skills of manipulation and coersion he makes several very sloppy blunders). At other times the writing is highly insightful; Bankhead is introduced seeing the war as little more than an entertainment that she can make capital from. The film features Hitchcock's favourite of his cameos; it's certainly his most inventive (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it).
The climax is interesting in terms of the possible readings one could take away. At first glance, the shaking of heads at the frightened young German who expected them to kill him (he is rescued but then pulls a gun on them) seems to be a somewhat glib ascribing of innate moral superiority to the Allies. But we have to consider also that those uttering this sentiment have just lynched the nefarious German who was plotting their demise/surrender. And Hitchcock filmed them doing this in a fairly unequivocally disdainful eye (as he said to Truffaut, "they're like a pack of dogs"). Nevertheless, while it would have been astonishing to arrive at any other point, I couldn't help but be disappointed that Willy is revealed to be so single-mindedly villainous beneath his charm and manipulation. Walter Slezak makes the character immensely charismatic in his level-headedness while all around are falling to pieces. A more interesting and less polarised approach might have been more satisfying (after all the previous year had brought the amazingly even-handed and insightful The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). But I was also slightly disappointed for the more prosaic reason that the German being the villain was obvious, and you want Hitchcock to surprise you. But in Lifeboat, the surprise is one telegraphed by the title and poster; the director will be imposing severely restrictive elements upon himself and the pleasure for the viewer is in seeing how he is able to sustain this.