Lifeboat (1944)–a film with a single, confined setting–in some ways operates as a trial run for RW. Storywise they would seem to have little in common. What could the difficulties of a group of WW2 shipwreck survivors have to do with a Greenwich Village murder investigation? But from a technical standpoint the two films share quite a lot. Naturally, most of it has to do with keeping a single set from going stale.
Famously, RW gets a lot of its story set-up out of the way through a technique we could call visual exposition. You can tell a lot about a man just by the objects in his room, so the camera tours Jeff’s apartment while he sleeps. With nary a word of dialog, we are “told” the character’s name, the state of his health, his profession, his standing within that profession, even the cause of his current predicament.
Something similar occurs at the beginning of Lifeboat. The film opens with a shot of a ship’s smokestack sliding under the water. We then pan across the surface to inspect the detritus left behind: the lid of a first-aid crate–we learn the ship was out of New York, bound for the U.K.–playing cards, checkerboard, a copy of The New Yorker–all from the ship’s bar–a dead U-boat sailor–we know the cause of the disaster, and also that the submarine was destroyed in the attack. Eventually we see a lifeboat emerge from the mist, a lone figure aboard. It is Tallulah Bankhead, center-stage. She awaits the other players, who must enter swimming.
Come to think of it, Lifeboat and RW have many things other than cinematic technique in common. Both films involve a central couple around whom a community of sort develops. Both involve a heroine who, only after protracted struggle, is able to land her mate. ln Lifeboat, Tallulah spies her man early–an example of the female gaze?–and captures him in the frame of her viewfinder. Hitchcock shows us that capture, which proves prophetic.