Pete’s Peek | The Masters of Cinema’s timely re-release of Hitchcock’s wartime drama Lifeboat

Alfred Hitchcock has long been regarded as the Master of Suspense, but he was also pretty good at propaganda judging from the Masters of Cinema release of Lifeboat (1944), which was his direct response to the ongoing war in Europe.

After their ship is torpedoed in the North Atlantic, a handful of survivors await rescue aboard a lifeboat. But when the captain of a downed German U-boat is pulled from the sea, the survivors fall out and quarrel with each over his fate and the direction their boat should be heading.

Not many directors would dare to make an entire suspense film set on board a lifeboat, but Hitchcock, of course, does it masterfully. Thanks to his superb storyboarding skills, you quickly forget it’s all been shot in a Hollywood studio, while the performances of the terrific cast soon draw you into the unfolding drama. Tallulah Bankhead is just marvellous as a mink-coated journalist falling for the dubious charms of John Hodiak’s tough sailor, while Walter Slezak shines as the cagey German officer. But it’s William Bendix as the patriotic German-American suffering from gangrene who really brings a tear to the eye.

While Lifeboat is unashamedly wartime propaganda and its views are very much of the period (especially the racial stereotyping), it does ask profound questions about war that continue to resonate. Its Oscar-nominated cinematography, meanwhile, is superb – especially considering the staged conditions in which they were created.

The special Dual Format features a new HD master of Lifeboat, and new HD transfers of Hitchcock’s French language film shorts, Bon voyage and Aventure malgache, which the director made to promote the cause of the French Resistance.

Next month, the BFI in London launches a major celebration of the director’s work as part of their London 2012 Festival, with a series of presentations of silent films across the capital, screened with specially-commissioned scores. These will comprise The Pleasure Garden (1926), The Lodger (1926), The Ring (1927) and Blackmail (1929). A complete Hitchcock retrospective takes place at the BFI Southbank from August. Click here for details.