Always up for a technical challenge, Hitchcock took on the assignment to make an entire film in a small lifeboat. It’s even more claustrophobic than Rear Window, though of course in this one the backdrop is the (rear-projected) open sea. It’s taken from a story by John Steinbeck, though the screenwriters altered it liberally. A Merchant Marine ship goes down, torpedoed by a submarine, and eight American and British survivors are adrift in the boat. They pick up a German survivor (Walter Slezak), and debate killing him. They really should have, as he is a nasty specimen. But they let him live. One of the survivors is a young mother who is holding her dead baby. She soon loses her mind, and drowns herself. William Bendix has a bad leg injury, and the German (who it turns out, to no one’s surprise in the audience at least, is the sub’s captain) says he used to be a doctor, and the leg has to go. It’s a pretty harrowing scene, with several people crowding around, working on the sailor, who is passed out from brandy. At the end, the useless boot is tossed on the deck. Other conflicts arise, climaxing in the German convincing the sailor to go over the side and kill himself. He seems to think none of the other passengers will have a problem with this, as the man was useless. Typical Nazi thinking. The others overpower him and beat him to death.
It is all obviously a social allegory, with each person there to represent a point of view. There’s the rich industrialist with liberal squeamishness (appeasement) about killing the Nazi. The rich, bitchy journalist (Tallulah Bankhead). The socialist (John Hodiak), there to argue with Tallulah, who calls him comrade. The Negro, there to recite the 23rd Psalm and play mournful tunes on his flute. And so on. But it all works very well. There is a rousing finish as they are all about to be taken prisoner by a German supply ship, when who should appear but the Coast Guard, blowing the dirty Nazis out of the water!
What amazes me is that some critics were very harsh with this movie, because they thought it portrayed the German in a too-sympathetic light. Whoa! About all they could have done to make him any worse was to have him drooling green bile. He lies about everything, he steals their water, he conceals his compass and steers them the wrong way, he pretends not to speak English, he ordered the machine-gunning of survivors of the shipwreck and, of course, he all but murders William Bendix.
Amusing anecdote from the DVD extras: Tallulah was notorious for not wearing underwear. Since many of the scenes were staged up on platforms, people could see all the way to squirrelville, as we used to say in high school. When Hitch was informed of this, he said “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing.”