Based on a story by American novelist John Steinbeck, Lifeboat takes place within the confines of a small craft which serves as a microcosm reflecting the world affected by the war.
Hitchcock made a few propaganda pieces during the course of WWII, but this is easily the best. The story revolves around the two main characters, Tallulah Bankhead’s sassy reporter and Walter Slezak’s obsequious U-Boat captain, who is rescued after his submarine is sank during the battle. Bankhead plays a particularly strong character, devoid of the usual femme fatale traits that usually associated strong female leads during this period, perhaps nodding towards the changing role of women in society necessitated by the war. She seems to represent the role of America, initially acting only as observer, unwilling to get her hands dirty – quite literally. As she experiences the hardships suffered by the other characters she gradually sheds her interest in material possessions, eventually becoming the driving force that unites them to escape their situation. Slezak personifies the Nazis, not demonised or shown as a monster but rather an insidious, arrogant and self-superior man who lacks any hint of human compassion. This lack of demonisation is added to by the treatment of the young German sailor who pulls a gun on them as gratitude for his rescue, but he is shown more like the victim of indoctrination into an evil mindset rather than an evil person himself. The final speech by Bankhead is the crux of the story, as she claims that they were only victims of “mob” thinking while subjugating themselves to Slezak’s will when it seemed most convenient to them, rather than fighting for their liberty; not only a criticism of the German people for allowing Hitler’s rise to power, but a warning to the rest of the world as to the price of complacency.
All in all Lifeboat is a cleverly scripted and unusually sophisticated propaganda piece directed by a master storyteller.