HELL AND HIGH WATER —–“In the summer of 1953, it was announced that an atomic bomb of foreign origin had been exploded somewhere outside of the United States. Shortly thereafter it was indicated that this atomic reaction, according to scientific reports, originated in a remote area in North Pacific waters, somewhere between the northern tip of the Japanese Islands and the Arctic Circle. This is the story of that explosion.”
OK, sure, I’ll bite, in this instance into a wild and crazy product of its time, the hold-your-breath-because-it-may-be-your-last-one 1954 days of the Cold War. The grim Korean “police action” had slogged its deeply unsatisfying way to a standoff stop, and the wrecking ball wielded by drunken lout Sen.Joseph McCarthy was about to stop ruining reputations, but Fear of Commies wasn’t going away, especially since “They got the Bomb”. Prime camp nonsense now, it did well enough back when Ike was President, a gross of $7,700,000 placing it a respectable 37th for the year (it only cost $1,870,000), but gained a new generation of fans in the early 60s when it was one of the 20th Century-Fox horde unleashed on NBCs Saturday Night At The Movies. Like others in that batch—Halls Of Montezuma, Destination Gobi, Red Skies Of Montana—it starred take-no-guff Richard Widmark, helping affix him tough-hero status for a new group of ever-loyal fans.
It’s 1953 (enough to chill you right there). A former U.S. Navy submarine skipper with the requisite rep for skill and an anguished past (Widmark, 39) takes a payday job at the behest of a group of international scientists, who skip official government involvement to find out what in the hell the Reds (Mao Tse-Tung variety) are doing on an island somewhere in the North Pacific. As expected, the Commies are up to no goodski, itching to use a Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-4 disguised as an American B-29 to drop an A-bomb on Korea and blame it on the U.S. Talk about unfair. WW3, what are waiting for?
Outlandish and overheated from one end of the 103 minutes to the other, the nutty screenplay by Jesse L. Lasky Jr. (of numerous florid DeMille epics) and Beirne Lay Jr.(Twelve O’Clock High) was reworked enough by director Samuel Fuller to suit Fuller’s punch-it-across style, and going full-speed ahead he then made effective use of the new CinemaScope process (cameraman was Joseph Macdonald) even with most of the action taking place in the confines of a submarine. *
“So tell me Professor, what makes a girl who looks like that get mixed up in science? ”
Widmark’s crew of salts use an overhauled WW2 Japanese sub (Q: were there any left?) to sneak up on the island where the nefarious plan is to be launched from. They have to outwit a Chinese sub on the way, have some accidents (the old Hand Caught in the Hatch and Saw-it-Off Problem made an impression) and naturally the cynical skipper falls for the lady professor-linguist-knockout who’s along for the trip. ‘Professor Denise Gerard’ (can you grasp 50s movie logic that signals “Ooh-la-la”?) is played, in her debut, by 26-year old Bella Darvi, Fox master Darryl F. Zanuck’s Polish ‘discovery’/mistress. The make-a-pass technique written for Widmark to deploy on Miss Darvi is about as subtle as cave drawings. But after all, RED CHINA!! is threatening us, so let’s cut the foreplay to a minimum. Since she’s French, and probably passed biology as well as What to Wear on a Suicide Mission, she’ll understand.
The undersea special effects (model sub time) are passable for the era, but the best action stuff comes when our guys have a blazing nighttime skirmish with the enemy around some oil tanks (cue spectacular explosions), augmented by nifty visuals and cool Fox sound effects, and then there’s the cool-meet-insane classic sequence at the finale when the sub crew scrambles on deck with every weapon they can wield to shoot at the bomb-carrying plane. It looks super-boss in an old-style comic-book way, though you have to wonder over the idea of throwing volleys of lead (including from a deck gun) at a plane flying by at low altitude, carrying an atom bomb. We kids didn’t worry, ‘cuz these were, after all, the “duck & cover” days. The special effects (which include, or we’d feel cheated, an A-bomb detonating) were Oscar-nominated, losing to the year’s other essential submarine story, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Hard to argue with a cooler sub, a giant squid and Walt Disney. Plus Walt blew up an island at the end of that one, too, so case closed.
Alfred Newman’s seagoing score is sort of standard ‘nautical rousing’ stuff, but he really socks it in the kisser right off the bat with a suitably awe-struck accompaniment to the majestic/horrible color atom-bomb footage behind the opening credits.
Manning up to back Widmark’s radiated play are Victor Francen (representing silly cautious scientists, so naturally the skipper has to argue with him) Cameron Mitchell (over-acting up a storm as a horndog, as he likewise did in Garden Of Evil), Gene Evans (demoted from lead roles in Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets! and Park Row), David Wayne (barely anything to do here, also rank-stripped after several leads), the essential Richard Loo, Peter Chong, Wong Artane, Henry Kulky and John Wengraf.
* Fuller, from his ribald autobio “A Third Face”: “Easily, my least favorite picture was Hell And High Water, though it wasn’t a stinker. It’s just that the movie didn’t come from one of my own stories or original scripts.” Fuller took the job as a favor to Darryl F. Zanuck, who’d backed Fuller when FBI godfather J. Edgar Hoover took issue with Fuller’s Pickup On South Street. “I reworked (it) into a stylized, cartoonish tale.” We’re living inside a giant cartoon; might as well enjoy it on DVD.