Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is a vain journalist who tries to maintain the appearance of someone whose personal appearance and lifestyle have not been tarnished by the catastrophic ordeal surrounding her. Her hair looks stylish, and she wears a fur coat. She is more concerned about the run in her stocking than in the vessel that has sunk. Her priority is getting news footage on her camera before helping a survivor get onboard the lifeboat on which she has taken refuge. The man who joins her on the escape craft is John Kovac (John Kodiak), and in contrast to Porter, he is filthy, smeared all over with oil because he worked in the engine room. He is very aware of the differences between them as he points out that she doesn’t look like she has been in a shipwreck. We note her cold detachment to the horror of the situation as she is excited by her recording of how the Germans had even shelled the lifeboats. She also recorded people getting sucked down into the water, and tells Kovac that the German U-boat was also sunk. Kovac quickly sees that Porter is self-involved with sensationalist journalism, and when a baby’s milk bottle drifts pass them, and she wants to get a shot of it, he says to her, “Why don’t you wait for the baby to float by.” He sums her up when he tells her that her observations of events show that she only describes them in terms of how they relate to her. He later tells her that she basically views the war as if it were a stage show for her amusement, and that if enough people die, she might give it a rating of “four stars.” Kovac accidentally knocks Porter’s camera into the sea when he lunges for an oar to try and rescue another survivor. Porter again is only worried about her story and her things as she is incensed about losing her recordings as opposed to saving another human being. Kovac’s sarcastic comment about her complaints is, “Maybe we can arrange another shipwreck for you sometime.”
Before that happens, there are references to class struggle in society. Because of her fur and jewelry, Porter seems high class to Kovac, while he struggled working in the stockyards section of Chicago. Previously, Porter asked Kovac to fix the catch on her bracelet, treating him like a lower class laborer. But during the storm he holds onto her and says they’ll go down together. Afterwards Porter comments on how reaching out for each other while almost losing their lives in the storm was a kind of intimacy. She says, “Dying together’s even more personal than living together.” Her observation is insightful because people draw closer to one another when they must face adversity together. She admits that she is from the same area near the stockyards. She says, “You’re a low person, darling. Obviously, out of the gutter.” But, since she is also “out of the gutter,” they are attracted to each other. But, Kovac doesn’t believe at this point that she is sincere about any long-standing connection to him given her rise above her station. He sees her coming on to him as a form of “slumming.” The wealthy Ritt says to Sparks that he doesn’t have to call him Rittenhouse, but can use his nickname because, “We’re all in the same boat.” This phrase usually applies in a figurative sense, but here that usage is reinforced because it is also literally the case here. And the fact that all of these people are cut off from society at large and the playing field is level should mean that they can leave behind the things that separated them. But, Ritt can’t do that himself, having been a captain of industry. He assumes the role of leader, assigning tasks to the others. They, in turn, are defiant. When Kovac asks what Ritt knows about a ship, Porter says, “Among other things, he just happens to own a shipyard.” Kovac then says sarcastically, “Has he ever been in it?” With the approval of others, Kovac assumes command, illustrating that those at the top of the social chain may not be the ones to rely on to do the dirty work of actually getting the job done.
The German sailor, Willi, one would think would be someone who can leave behind the war and focus on joining the others as equal members of the human race as they try to survive. It seems that way at first, since he appears to know the best way to get to Bermuda. He also was a surgeon in civilian life, and says that Gus’ leg is so bad, he must amputate it or else the man will die. Porter does perform a couple of decent acts here as she gives Gus a large bottle of brandy to drink so that he will pass out during the surgery, and a cigarette to smoke. She also gives him a big kiss as a kind of affectionate good luck gesture before the operation. They all work together to help Willi with the procedure, and Gus survives the amputation. Hitchcock spares us the grisly aspects of the operation, and all we see is Kovac tossing Gus’ boot aside, symbolic of the lost leg. (Hitchcock uses close-ups to great advantage to provide visual variety in such a claustrophobic setting. He also gets in his a trademark cameo of himself in a weight loss ad in a newspaper that depicts before-and-after photos of himself).
Porter suspects that Willi is not just another seaman, and calls out the word for “captain” in German. When Willi responds to the title, they realize he was the one who was issuing, not following orders. They also learn that he can speak English. However, despite his deceptions, and Kovac’s objections, the majority of the survivors put their trust in Willi since he knows about sailing. Willi also gets them through the bad storm, and he uses his strength to row the boat after the mast is destroyed in the strong winds. However, he now appears to waver on which is the right direction they should be heading. We also see him pull out his own compass in secret (the Americans’ compass was broken). As the survivors become more weak through dehydration and hunger, Willi takes more control. Sparks realizes, by noting the positions of Venus and Mars, that they are heading away from Bermuda. Also, MacKenzie saw what she thought was Willi’s watch (but which was really the compass) and yet the man asked the time of day. They discover the compass and now know that he is rowing them toward a German supply ship. They are now his P.O.W’s. But given the low supply of provisions, Willi convinces them that going to a supply ship is their best bet.
But Willi is not able to leave the war behind. Gus has been drinking sea water, and he becomes delusional, thinking Rosie is there. Gus sees Willi drinking from a bottle. Willi, afraid that Gus will expose the fact that he has brought drinking water with him, feels he must get rid of Gus. While the others are sleeping, Willi talks to him, pretending to comfort him, but when Gus comes closer, Willi pushes him overboard. Sparks now realizes he heard Gus speaking, and they suspect Willi of doing him in. They see that Willi is sweating, so he must have water to do so. They find his bottle of water, and he admits that he also brought with him salt and food tablets. In a rage, they beat Willi and throw him overboard. Ritt, exercising poetic justice, but which also has a touch of irony, pummels Willi with Gus’ boot, which is fitting since Willi killed Gus, but it also is a reminder that the German first saved him with the surgery. Porter comments that Willi was like Hitler, because both took advantage of desperate people. Ritt, disillusioned with Willi’s behavior after they rescued the man and trusted him, asks, “What do you do with people like that?”
The survivors show a range of feelings. Porter is angry about losing her things and now feeling hungry and thirsty. She turns on Ritt, blaming him for losing the food in the storm. He says she can write a book about her tribulations, because everything is always about her. Kovac and Ritt play cards, and Ritt accuses Kovac of cheating. Ritt later has regrets that he joined the mob action of tossing Willi overboard, and bemoans never having children. When many of the survivors are ready to give up, Porter rallies them. She gives up her diamond bracelet, the object that Kovac felt symbolized her selfishness, so that it can be used as a lure to catch a fish for food. Porter jokes about her greed when she says about the bracelet, “I can recommend the bait. I know … I bit on it myself.”
Just as they are about to land a fish, the German supply ship appears and sends out a smaller craft to collect them. But then an Allied ship shows up, and fires and sinks the boat and then the German ship. A young German sailor climbs aboard the lifeboat. Again, some are ready to help him. But, he has a gun, which they are able to take away from him. He asks if they are going to kill him. And so, the ending of the story is like the beginning, with a ship and its boats being destroyed, this time by Allied forces. Another German appears, and people can’t forget about being enemies so that they can work together. Despite some altruistic actions, it appears that humans are caught in a vicious cycle of selfishness, mistrust, and violence.
After the encounter with the new German, Sparks repeats Ritt’s question: “What do you do with people like that?” Kovac says, “I dunno. I was thinking of Mrs. Higley and her baby. And Gus.” Porter’s pessimistic comment is, “Maybe they can answer that.” The living can’t say why humans are so self-destructive, and the dead can’t speak. We are left with an unanswered question.
The next film is Fahrenheit 451.