Lifeboat appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. After a rocky start, the picture quickly improved.
The first reel of Lifeboat looked simply atrocious. The image was very dense with grain, though I admit I found it tough to tell how much of the problem came from grain and how much may have been smoke on the set. Since the issue cleaned up abruptly, I think it was grain, but it remained difficult to tell.
Many other defects cropped up during the first reel. The movie looked soft and muddy, with inky blacks and poor contrast. Source flaws included specks, marks, scratches, lines, blotches and spots. These created quite a few distractions and made the film almost unwatchable.
Happily, once the flick moved past its first 10 minutes, it looked much better. Sharpness immediately improved. An occasional soft element appeared, but the movie mostly came across as tight and well-defined. (As usual for a Hitchcock flick, shots of leading lady Bankhead were intentionally soft, so I didn’t factor those as a problem.) I noticed no jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement appeared absent.
Source flaws decreased dramatically after the first act. I still saw the occasional speck or line, but those were reasonably infrequent. Blacks became nicely dark, and shadows were appropriately smooth and concise. I really couldn’t complain about the movie after the first 10 minutes. That section looked so terrible that I felt I couldn’t give the transfer a grade above a “B-“, but if I dropped the first reel from consideration, I’d award the image at least a “B” and maybe even a “B+”. Most of Lifeboat offered satisfying visuals.
While not poor, the stereo soundtrack of Lifeboat seemed more mediocre. Fox just loves their stereo remixes of mono sources. I’m usually not wild about them. At best they’re minor enhancements of the mono tracks, and at worst, they’re muddy and distorted.
I didn’t mind the stereo mix of Lifeboat, largely because I thought it was stereo in name only. If any real expansion of the audio to the sides occurred, I didn’t notice it. Lifeboat doesn’t exactly offer an auditory extravaganza. It’s a simple affair and worked perfectly well within the monaural spectrum. A few effects may have moved gently toward the sides, but I can’t recall anything notable.
Audio quality was acceptable for a 60-year-old movie and no better. Speech created some concerns. I had a few problems with intelligibility, though not many; I usually found it easy to understand what the folks said. Nonetheless, sibilance and edginess popped up frequently, as the lines often appeared brittle. Effects fared a little better. They were fairly thin and wan, but they demonstrated decent clarity and lacked distortion. Music played virtually no role in the film; after the opening credits, we didn’t hear score again until the close. Overall, this track was listenable but nothing special.
When we move to the DVD’s extras, we start with an audio commentary from film historian Dr. Drew Casper. He presents a running, screen-specific chat. Casper covers some of the usual topics typical for this sort of track, but he adds an unusual level of depth. That comes from the amount of time during which he interprets the movie’s characters and themes; he really digs into those areas with gusto. He also goes over standard subjects like cast and crew biographies, the movie’s development and path to the screen, Hitchcock’s directorial style and his wartime efforts, politics and relationships on the set, censorship and reactions to the film.
On the negative side, Casper goes silent a little too much of the time. More than a few moderately extended gaps pop up here. However, Casper launches into his subjects with such gusto that the dear air causes few problems. He offers a nice examination of the film and its themes along with interpretation and enough concrete data to give us a solid background. This comes out as a solid discussion.
The Making of Lifeboat lasts 19 minutes and 57 seconds. It offers movie snippets, archival materials and comments from Casper, Hitchcock’s daughter Pat and his granddaughter Mary Stone, and Library of America editor Robert DeMott. We get notes about World War II’s impact on Hitchcock and his career at the time, the genesis of the movie’s story, John Steinbeck’s involvement and the tale’s various iterations, casting, sets and storyboards, complications during the shoot, Hitchcock’s cameo, editing and Daryl F. Zanuck’s interference, and the film’s reception.
Some of this material repeats from Casper’s commentary, but the show wraps it up into a neat package. It also emphasizes the flick’s nuts and bolts and leaves out Casper’s interpretation, so it’s a good summary for folks who just want to hear about those issues. It’s a tight little piece.
The DVD ends with a Still Gallery. This breaks into five domains. “Advertising Lifeboat” offers text that lets us know what we’ll find, while images show up in “Newspaper Ads” (19 screens), “Newspaper Articles” (16), “Display Accessories” (13), and “Theater Promotions and Contests” (14). These offer a lot of interesting materials and form a good collection of stills.
Although not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known works, 1944’s Lifeboat holds up well after all these decades. It offers an interesting allegory for World War II but also works as a claustrophobic character-based thriller even without those notions. After a rocky start, the DVD’s image looks quite good, and the audio always seems adequate. The package rounds out with an insightful audio commentary and some other good extras. Lifeboat earns my recommendation.