Lifeboat is clearly a propaganda film but apparently when it came out people were offended that it seemed not completely anti-German (as in portraying them as actual human beings). I guess that makes Alfred Hitchcock a better filmmaker than the wretched and overrated studio propagandist director Lewis Milestone (real name Lev Milstein). Lifeboat takes a more complex road in the way character interaction between the enemy and his dependent co-refugees. The German captain Willi plays his enemies as long as he can in playing ignorance (for example, pretending to not know English).
A self-loathing German-American proudly admits that he changed his family name from Schmidt to Smith. Willi later reveals what he really thinks of such ancestral “traitors” ultimately resulting in the captains downfall. Lifeboat is also the only world war 2 film that I can remember seeing acknowledging the German-American role as those American Krauts were the largest ethnic group (upwards of 40% of all soldiers) to fight for the USA in WW2. It seems Hollywood is only interested in finding all the handful of minorities under rocks for recent fantasy World War II big budget films.
Tallulah Bankhead does an extraordinary job as an aging madame who has been able to live a fairly successful life living off married men. She sports a very fancy bracelet that turns off a younger tattoo covered sailor who has a working class inferiority complex. The brilliance of the film lies in these varying individuals that you wouldn’t normally expect to see in the same room (or boat) with one another. The most neglected character was probably the black man on the boat that saved a white woman. For the boat, he provides entertainment and is persuaded by the shipmates to steal a watch (which was really a compass) from the German captain. I would like to hear Spike Lee’s commentary on this character.
Due to it’s original small release, Lifeboat has not gotten the recognition that it deserves. The film clearly holds up with the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s excessive film lexicon. Lifeboat is an experiment in how a collective of individuals are incapable of making important decisions that will benefit all. The Nazi captain being the most proactive and helping (despite his cryptic behavior) of the group, confirms this. Lifeboat also demonstrates that one man can be much stronger than a whole group (a theme also found in Billy Wilder‘s concentration camp comedy Stalag 17).