“Hell and High Water” is a Samuel Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”) film. He did not really want to make the film, but he owed Darryl Zanuck because he had stood up to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when he wanted to squash the release of Fuller’s film noir “Pickup on South Street”. Hoover did not like Fuller’s movies and felt the movie was not patriotic enough. Zanuck told him tough luck. Fuller insisted on rewriting the script and agreed to use cinemascope to prove that it could work in a submarine setting. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The movie was a big hit and is one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite films.
The movie begins with a narrator telling us that there has been a mysterious nuclear explosion in the North Pacific. The year is 1953 and the world is stuck in the Cold War. This ominous development has brought a team of international scientists together and they hire an ex-sub skipper named Jones (Richard Widmark) to go on a special mission to save the world from nuclear destruction. Jones is provided with an old WWII Japanese sub that he accurately describes as a “sewer pipe”. But he at least gets to pick his motley crew. However, he will also have to bring aboard the lead scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) and his comely assistant scientist Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi). Once they get their wolfish comments out of the way, the crew realizes that they are supposed to be upset about having a woman on board. Jones quells the mutiny by pointing out that it is impossible to have a romance without a female. As with all submarine special missions, the sub has to sail prematurely. It follows a Chinese freighter that is delivering supplies to a mysterious island. And it is being followed by a Chinese sub. Queue the sub duel. When they reach their destination they have to make two shore party landings. Double the fun!
I have to admit that I was not familiar with “Hell and High Water” until I did my Submarine Movie Tournament. This is surprising because it is a Sam Fuller film and it was a box office success. The movie has possibly been forgotten because it is something of a curio from the Cold War era. It is the only sub movie that I can recall that features a Red Chinese sub. The plot is unique (although not immune from sub movie clichés), but not outlandish. The idea of the Communist Chinese possessing a nuclear bomb would have been a scary specter in 1954, but the how the movie posits they might use it is James Bondsian. Jones is no secret agent, but he does have Bond’s snarky nature and gets to bed the sexy scientist. Widmark is perfect for the role and could play it in his sleep. The rest of the cast is fine. Even Darvi, who did not have to win the role by out-auditioning others. She was Zanuck’s mistress. The rogue invented her stage name from a hybrid of Darryl and his wife’s name, Virginia. (War movie fans might recall that Zanuck also put his current mistress, Irina Demick, into “The Longest Day” eight years later.) She does not embarrass her mentor/lover. She is the rare strong female character in a war movie. She is a hot egg head who can fight. Her character gets to kill a commie – surely the only female kill in a sub movie. The big three get some character development (Jones lost his boat in WWII to a mine), but other than drooling and bitching about the dame, the crew is just along for the ride.
“Hell and High Water” is one of the better sub movies. This is mainly because it is a Sam Fuller film. It has his gritty, no nonsense style. This is crucial because there are plot developments that are nonsensical. He avoids most sub clichés. The most common cliché, the sub is depth charged, does not occur. It can’t avoid the special mission and commando raid tropes. The first landing has a lot of “Crash Dive” in it. The effects are fine and deserved an Oscar nod. The underwater effects are fine, but hardly revolutionary. It is certainly a must-see for war movie lovers and Sam Fuller fans.
GRADE = B