Lifeboat is a film at constant odds with itself. It's a highly theatrical concept that could never effectively be staged live. The action is played to the back row even though the boat is hardly 10 feet across. The actual plot is secondary to the political and thematic issues at play. Alfred Hitchcock delicately balances a whole lot of disturbing subject matter into something incredibly watchable and unnerving. Essentially, the survivors of a German submarine attack on an Ally freighter wind up on a lifeboat together. They include American civilians (a millionaire businessman and a star reporter), American and British troops, a young British mother, and a German soldier. The German soldier can only communicate through the narcissistic writer who happens to speak German. The survivors are constantly at odds about how to survive, representing the civilian and military interests of America, Britain, and Germany in World War II.
Tallulah Bankhead is at her most riveting as the reporter who literally loses everything to gain some humanity. She selfishly has a porter load all of her luggage onto a lifeboat at the expense of countless other passengers and is forced to relinquish her material possessions to survive. First, a brash seaman knocks her camera into the water, horrified at the reporter's glee over her footage of the boat catching fire and sinking. Her mink coat is lost to a survivor who chooses death over the uncertainty of rescue. Her personal possessions are divvied up throughout the voyage to perform operations, create sails, and soothe her fellow survivors. It is the most theatrical conceit in the film and creates some of the more compelling images of Lifeboat.
The iconic shot, though, is that German soldier rowing the boat by himself, never losing energy and never requiring sleep. It is the haunting spectre of the ongoing war, the threat of the Nazi party and its growing ranks. He happily sits there, singing songs and telling jokes while his fellow survivors suffer in misery. The strongest becomes the leader by default and the shock of the freighter going down renders the Americans and Brits powerless in German territory.
Upon release, Lifeboat was considered pro-Nazi propaganda by American critics*. Hitchcock's greatest achievement in this film is refusing to demonize any of the participants in the story. Everyone is following orders. Being born, by chance, in Germany instead of England does not make a person inherently bad. The actions they choose without order separates good from evil, and everyone's true colors show eventually. It's the journey that makes Lifeboat such an interesting text.
Lifeboat is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
*A willfully ignorant reading of the film; the argument is literally "they didn't execute the Nazi on sight, so Hitchcock supports Hitler."