Walter Slezak was a Vienna-born actor who began his career as a leading man. His love for food, however, led him to balloon up to character-actor size, which then prompted his move to the U.S. to make a living as a comedy actor on the stage. Because of a robust voice, he made a splash (pardon the pun) on Broadway. After Broadway, he wanted to conquer Hollywood. And as luck would have it, everyone suddenly wanted to make films with German speakers at that time. So guess who always got to play the Nazi!
While John Hodiak was clearly cast as the leading man in Lifeboat, his performance appeared as miniscule alongside Slezak’s, and this is precisely why so many critics hated the film. Slezak, portraying the Nazi captain who shot down the freighter and was then rescued by the very people he tried to kill, came off as subtle, smart, and witty. The movement of his hand as he checks his compass is as sly and relaxed as his coercive murder of a passenger while all the others are asleep. He is at once likeable and despicable. And as Bosley Crowther pointed out in The New York Times, “Nor is he an altogether repulsive or invidious type. As Walter Slezak plays him, he is tricky and sometimes brutal, yes, but he is practical, ingenious and basically courageous in his lonely resolve. Some of his careful deceptions would be regarded as smart and heroic if they came from an American in the same spot.”
What was disconcerting to the American public was that the Nazi was actually a human. A human whom we would gladly cheer on if he were our captain. But Slezak wasn’t alone in this portrayal of the American-hero Nazi. While Earnest Hemmingway was originally approached to write the screenplay, he was unavailable to do the project, which is why you’ll notice there are actually some women and (gasp!) a black person on the boat. John Steinbeck was approached next, but his first draft was quite a bit different from Hitchcock’s expectations, as he chose to do a Tom Hanks-before-Tom Hanks-was-a-Tom Hanks, and set up only a single survivor in a lifeboat alone with his thoughts for two hours. Dramatically tense it was not. This led to a concerted effort between Hitchcock and two others to draft out the film. Meanwhile, Steinbeck’s name was kept on the movie posters as a marketing ploy.
Hitchcock, then, was actually the perpetrator of the human Nazi, while Steinbeck got half the credit for the anti-patriotic sentiments. This was ironic because Steinbeck originally set out to write the film as an anti-Nazi story. He did this because he had been denied entrance into the armed service and was seeking to serve his country in other ways.
Hitchcock defended himself by claiming that his intention was to portray an absolute human who still could not be trusted, because he was a Nazi. In essence, this is what he did. The main point of the film, however, was to portray a group of Americans and Englishmen who, despite their shared predicament, could not come to so much of a consensus that they could at the very least band together and take control of their own ship. In the film, they cannot.
The only person who has thought ahead, who can see the future and troubleshoot it is Walter Slezak, the charismatic Nazi. As an audience member, it’s astonishing how likeable Hitchcock makes Slezak, even singing German songs to lull an ailing passenger to sleep. And yet, it’s not surprising at all when he murders a cripple, quietly and efficiently, and somehow it’s difficult to tell if it was for the cripple’s sake, or if it truly was murder. Grey morals are working in a confined space, as nobody in the boat wants to rock it.
Hitchcock originally planned the story in a confined space because he needed the film to be shot and edited quickly. The studio heads were on his back about the length he’d needed for his previous films. What he didn’t foresee, though, was that almost every actor hired would fall ill, and the studio lot filled with water would prove just as dangerous as the open sea. Hume Cronyn even got sucked into one of the wave makers, injuring his ribs, and Tallulah Bankhead got pneumonia twice. The film took far longer than expected to make, and you can even see the toll it took on the actors, as their drained energy squeezes the dramatic tension from the scenes. They were tired and they should have been for their lifeboat predicament, but the script required them to fight and get angry, because sometimes real life just isn’t as entertaining as lifeboat life.
For all it’s worth, the cinematography of this black-and-white classic is truly wonderful and creative, and often so good that it’s difficult to notice that he’s done anything experimental at all. It exists within the film, not outside of it, and it’s just as natural and easy-going as the Nazi you should never learn to trust. Hitchcock managed to make a small boat seem beautiful and large, and he did it without color and with few shots of any kind of the epic sea. The shots, instead, were of the survivors as they looked out to the beyond, where nothing actually matters. One of the strange problems of cinema today is the panoramic epidemic, which simply takes large and pretty pictures of natural elements that already exist. They’re easy shots. All you need is a helicopter or a camera on a crane, and you’ve got your sprawling emotions in your natural grandeur.
Whether or not Lifeboat was propaganda that made its target audience a little queasy and confronted, there’s something here that we rarely talk about when we talk about Hitchcock and his place in American cinema. It might be nice to remember sometimes that while he was busy putting his lens up close into people’s faces, we’ve been busy pulling it back, up high, to an objective distance of the panoramic, where everything seems just as important as everything else. What’s important to us?