This spring, the CAL Film Series focuses on directors who made films for 20th Century Fox, and that list contains a film series favorite, “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock.
For Fox, Hitchcock delivered “Lifeboat,” one of Hitchcock's most thrilling and innovative features, a suspenseful drama set entirely on a lifeboat at sea, which was praised even then as an awesome technical achievement. Yet “Lifeboat” was Hitchcock’s only film for Fox, and was pulled from theaters shortly after its release because of controversy.
Understanding why requires going back to a time when World War II was still being waged, with its outcome still in considerable doubt. But it also requires us to consider Alfred Hitchcock as a political filmmaker, one who occasionally produced films that commented on current events with verve and controversy, much like Oliver Stone today.
Many of Hitchcock's films, of course, do display a breezy disconnection from political issues. But world war brought out another side to Hitchcock, and in addition to working like many directors at the time on pro-Allied propaganda films for the U.S and Britain, Hitchcock addressed warfare directly and with high seriousness in films like "Foreign Correspondent," "Notorious" and especially "Lifeboat."
Comparing "Correspondent" and "Lifeboat" is intriguing because these were both films about the war that got Hitchcock in trouble, but for the opposite reasons. According to biographer Patrick MacGilligan, when Hitchcock made "Correspondent," a thrill-packed warning against the rise of European fascism, the U.S. was not yet at war with Germany, and Hollywood still hoped to screen its films in German and Italian markets. Hitchcock, in order to get the film made, had to carefully remove any direct references to Germany, even though the film ends with a chilling premonition of a London air raid.
Three years later "Lifeboat" was stalled because of the opposite problem; the film was actually accused of favoring Germany. The conceit of the film is that the survivors of a ship sunk by a German submarine are forced to share a small lifeboat with one of the sub’s crewmembers. Despite their mutual distrust, it becomes clear that the German sailor is the only one who knows how to pilot the ship to safety. So they put their trust in him, and the question of whether or not that trust is well placed is central to the movie's suspense.
The Office of War Information objected to an early draft, and after the film's release famed columnist Dorothy Thompson (coincidentally the model for Tallulah Bankhead’s star turn as a fashionable war correspondent in the film) noted the apparent superiority of the German character to the others (a fractious, quarrelsome bunch) and argued the film “could be presented in Berlin as a morale builder.”
When asked years later about the controversy, Hitchcock shrugged. "They all thought it was pro-German ... which was idiotic." Indeed, time has made clear the serious intent of Hitchcock’s message: that wars are not won by underestimating the enemy.
Despite its limited run and the misguided criticism, the film was nominated for several Oscars and star Bankhead won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. The film holds up today as a thrilling cinematic achievement and a gripping and provocative war drama that still holds strong relevance.