For a director with such a boundless command of film language, Alfred Hitchcock had an odd compulsion to restrict himself. Sometimes his stylistic experiments just looked like experiments—witness Rope's "single shot" technique—and sometimes they paid off brilliantly, as when Hitchcock got the crazy notion of shooting a film from the perspective of a wheelchair-bound photographer. For the 1944 film Lifeboat—new to DVD in a nicely restored edition filled out with a scholarly commentary and a making-of doc—Hitchcock fixed his action to a single location even more claustrophobic than Rear Window's: a lifeboat drifting from the wreckage of a ship sunk by a German U-boat. Working from a story by John Steinbeck and a screenplay by Jo Swerling, Hitchcock filled the boat with characters unlikely to get along, then pulled back to watch the results.
The roots of reality TV can be found here, but unlike most reality TV, Hitchcock shows a genuine (though characteristically distant) interest in people. While he carefully chooses his cross-section of humanity, he refuses to reduce them to types. "The more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets, and the smaller the boat," Henry Hull's multi-millionaire character says at one point. A lot of directors would have let that stand as the film's message, but Lifeboat is a film in which people's capacity for kindness and cruelty go hand in hand, particularly when they find themselves removed from their usual environments.
No one looks more out of place than top-billed Tallulah Bankhead, first seen presiding over the empty boat with a regal indifference. Events bring her down to earth, but the process plays out less like well-earned comeuppance than like a reawakening. (Did any other actress possess the mix of dry wit and lusty appetite to pull off the part?) Other characters also rediscover themselves on the boat, and not always comfortably. In this sense, it's as much a war film as any frontline drama. Bankhead's fellow castaways (including Hume Cronyn, Walter Slezak, and William Bendix) are forced to deal with the raw, often ugly business of daily existence, and Hitchcock responds with scenes that rival any film in his career for sheer discomfort. Dead babies, amputations, tense confrontations, and, most memorably, a justified but still brutal lynching: This is Hitchcock with the gloss wiped off.
It's also a calculated piece of wartime propaganda, most obviously via Slezak's German sailor. But even this element has the typical Hitchcock subtlety. His new shipmates treat him with high-minded kindness and wind up nearly seduced by his will-to-power. Sometimes it makes sense to pay attention to the vastness of the ocean and the smallness of the boat just to avoid drowning.