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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hell And High Water

This 1954 film is a curious sibling to the doom genre film The Bedford Incident ('65). Both feature Richard Widmark commanding a vessel. There's a submarine. Both plots involve searching for some communists with nukes. Both end with a mushroom cloud. Hell and High Water (HHW) is a lesser sibling in some ways, but an early member of the atomic angst genre nonetheless. HHW was a big-scale 20th Century Fox production in Technicolor. Bedford was a lesser-budget black and white film shot in England. Yet, Bedford is the better film.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
Narrators, posing as radio reporters tell of the disappearance of a noted atomic scientist, Professor Montel and his lovely assistant, Professor Denise Gerard while we watch second unit footage of London, Paris, Rome and New York. At the airport in Tokyo, Adam Jones (Widmark), going by the alias of Mr. MacDoughall, goes through some cloak-and-dagger machinations to arrive at a secret meeting of concerned international scientists. Montel is among them. They suspect the Communist Chinese are up to something nuclear on a remote island in the north Pacific. They want Jones to command a submarine recon mission to follow a suspect freighter and confirm or disprove their concerns. Jones demurs, but they offer him money. He accepts. The group bought a WWII Japanese submarine for the task. It needs work and refitting. Before repairs are complete, the freighter departs, so Jones and crew must too. Aboard is Montel and Denise, who causes much hormonal wolfishness among the crew. En route, they are pursued by a Red Chinese sub. There are protracted cat-and-mouse maneuvers and the obligatory silence scene. During all this, Jones and Denise kiss and embrace. Eventually, Jones' sub rams the Chinese sub and proceeds. At the first island, they find nothing. Montel insists they look at another island further north. They do, and Jones sees a B-29 with American markings being loaded by chinese soldiers. They escape capture and flee, but capture a soldier who turns out to be a pilot. The sub's chinese cook poses as another prisoner to coax out what the pilot is up to. He finds out about a plot to bomb Korea with an atom bomb dropped from an American plane, so America will get blamed for it. The pilot discovers the ploy and kills the cook. The plane is to take off in the morning. Jones wants the sub positioned off the island's runway so the can shoot it down as it lumbers aloft. Jones was to go on the island to give the here-it-comes signal, but Montel steals the skiff and goes to the island. Denise screams that Montel is her father. Too late. He's gone and gives the signal. The bomber labors for altitude. Every man on the sub is firing whatever he had, deck cannon, 50 caliber, hand guns, everything. They manage to cripple the bomber's engines. It trails smoke and circles back to the island to attempt to land. Jones orders a crash dive. They go under. The island is engulfed in a big fire ball, followed by a mushroom cloud. The sub is buffeted, but survives. Jones and Denise hug. The End.

  Apocalypse Avoided
Earlier in the Atomic Angst genre, there was a more hopeful mood. The idea that the nuclear apocalypse could be avoided was more popular than the everyone's-gonna-die themes prevalent in the late 50s, early 60s. The Bedford Incident is an example of the latter. HHW is its sibling from the former mood. The gravity of a global nuclear war is understood in HHW, but the heroes, by pluck and courage manage to avert armageddon -- which was being schemed by the dastardly communists.

  Sci-Fi Angle
HHW might, just barely, qualify as a sci-fi, since it has some of the hallmarks. There are some scientists, a geiger counter, and something atomic. In the 50s, that was enough to qualify. The sci-fi family certainly had other tenuous claimants. Yet, HHW is essentially a war/sub movie with red nukes as the MacGuffin. Still, note the common optimism. In HHW, they avert the terrible war. In many sci-fi, the good guys kill the monster, or thwart the aliens, etc. Earlier sci-fi and atomic angst focused on presumed success.

Token Feminism -- Whether it was the story's creator, David Hempstead, or (more likely) the screen writers, Jesse Lasky, Jr. and director Samuel Fuller, the script is hyped-up bipolar mix of male chauvinism and feminism. The script can't decide which it is. On the one hand, all the men pant and drool over the only woman in the cast: Belle Darvi as Professor Gerard. She is, handily enough, young, trim and pretty. The men presume they can kiss (or paw) her. Isn't that what women are for? In an attempt to counterbalance this meaty viewpoint, the writers go to awkward lengths to let Denise be super smart. She speaks many languages including Chinese. She 'saves the day' at one point by being able to read the japanese labels on some valves. And, not least of all, she's a nuclear scientist. But, for all that, she screams like a girl, faints and gets carried to bed when she's weak.

  Cowboy Scientists -- There is a subtle optimism in the plot device that it is an international cabal of atomic scientists who assemble (and finance) the mission to save the world. The understated "dig" is that national governments are too entrenched in whatever Cold War posturing they've gotten themselves into. So, into the do-something vacuum rides our secret society of scientists, like cowboys, to save the day.

  That's Your Plan? -- The script writers said that the sneak-attack bombing of Korea would start World War III, but no hint is given as to just why the communist Chinese thought this was a good idea. Perhaps, as the nuclear-club weakling, they hoped American and Russia would blow each other up, leaving the Chinese as the strongest (surviving) power? Even in this scenario, the early Cold War optimism is expressed. Damage would be localized to America and Russia. The total disaster, ala On The Beach was not in view.

  Commie B-29s? -- Turns out, it was not all that far fetched that the Red Chinese would have a B-29 with which to pull off their deadly frame job. During WWII, three different American B-29s had to set down in the Soviet Union after missions over Japan. The Russians refused to return them. Lacking any sort of bomber as effective as the Super fortress, they took one completely apart so as to reverse engineer their own copy. Despite some minor differences, and slightly lesser performance, they succeeded. The Tupolev Tu-4 was a very good copy. With it, the USSR could conceivably reach the US mainland. The Tu-4 was the main Soviet bomber until the early 50s, when it was replaced by a more modern jet bomber. Some of the Russian Tu-4s were sold to China. So, there ya go.

  CinemaScope -- If you took away the widescreen format and color, HHW would be a fairly mediocre war film. What carries it into the lower A ranks is the strong use of color and the widescreen grandeur. Fox bought and developed the anamorphic format to give audiences wide screen visual feasts. Television, with its boxy 3:4 ratio, was becoming a bigger diversion. Movies needed something that TV couldn't do. HHW is Fox's ninth CinemaScope film. The first was The Robe in '53. Anamorphic lenses compressed (horizontally) a wide image into the boxy 35mm frame. The theater projector needed a matching anamorphic lens to decompress the squozen images. It was all still a visual treat in '54, so HHW's plot or action shortcomings were more easily overlooked. Modern audiences aren't as dazzled by color and wide image, so the mediocre plot is more apparent.

 Bottom line? HHW is an okay movie, if one is already predisposed to like submarine war movies. It would make an interesting Widmark-Subs-and-Nukes double feature with The Bedford Incident. It's not a thoughtful film, and drags at times and at other times almost painfully corny or trite. Yet, it is a representative sample of Cold War zeitgeist of its time. Disaster could be averted by action heroes.

1 comment:

Gregorian said...

DavidT's sounds like "Battle Beyond the Stars". A Roger Corman movie using the Seven Samurai plot.

C's sounds like The Prisoner TV show.

If it wasn't for the B&W, I'd suggest War of the Worlds for Billodot. But it probably isn't.