DVD: Hell in High Water (1954)
Label: Twentieth Century-Fox/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: May, 2007
Genre: Action / Adventure / Romance
Synopsis: A melange of postwar allies and former foes are enlisted to use a secret submarine and get photographic evicence on a potential Red Nuclear Menace.
Special Features: Biography: Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters (44:17) / Interactive Pressbook / Stills Gallery / Theatrical Trailer
Twentieth Century-Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck had a curious history of ‘discovering’ leading ladies – becoming personally involved with a few, and then distancing himself from his former loves after his personal career supervision failed to create a magically popular leading lady in the U.S.
As a production head at Fox and former studio Warner Bros., Zanuck was remarkable, but his efforts to turn Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco (The Sun Also Rises, The Roots of Heaven [M]), and Irina Demick (The Longest Day) into Fox stars were disasters – not because they lacked some talent or a modicum of thespian skills, but they just didn’t click with North American audiences.
Part of the problem stemmed from the process of plopping a discovery into a high profile production, and announcing her debut as ‘spectacular’ – essentially telling audiences ‘You MUST love her!’ It ran against the studio norm of building up new talent through small roles, and as they grow, guide them into larger parts until they’re ready for a starring vehicle. It worked for Marilyn Monroe, so why did Zanuck insist on igniting a starlet’s career career so big?
Ego, perhaps; letting peers or colleagues know he could not only make pictures, but knew something about finding a perfectly cut diamond amid the rougher ones usually grabbed and refashioned into stars by the competition. With Bella Darvi, however, the whole rags-to-riches process was much odder than the rest.
Zanuck’s wife Virginia ‘discovered’ Polish-born Bayla Wegia in a Monaco casino, and both Zanucks were convinced Wegia had enough of an exotic look that she could make a hit in pictures. Zanuck paid off her substantial gambling debts – a recurring problem throughout her short life – and when she was brought to the U.S., she stayed at the Zanuck compound and was re-christened Bella Darvi for the marquee – the latter name being a rather egotistical, possessory creation that combined ‘Darryl’ and ‘Virginia.’
Imagine being recognized under a name that always harkens back to your owners!
Darvi, who was fluent in multiple continental languages, appeared in three high-profile films, starting with Hell in High Water (1954), a big CinemaScope production with Richard Widmark.
Sam Fuller and Jesse Lasky Jr.’s script actually presents a simple yet topical comic book espionage tale: a secret ‘expedition’ must find proof the Reds are developing nuclear gear for use against the West, and present it to the international community to stave off a doomsday scenario. In tandem with the danger are a series of disappearances of high-profile scientists – the last snatched up and reportedly taken into deepest darkest Russia.
It’s the middle of the Cold War, and only democratic allies can be trusted, and although Red Russia and Red China are never directly implicated, it’s clear they’re the biggies; the expedition just needs data and photos, but naturally things become more complicated.
In the first act, a former U.S. naval officer, Captain Adam Jones (Widmark), is hired by a secretive organization for some work in Japan. He discovers his patrons are the missing scientists, headed by professor Montel (Victor Francen), and they’re offering him $50,000 to pilot a refurbished Japanese sub into Red China and investigate disputed islands in search of nuclear gear.
Jones hand-picks his crew, and Montel brings along his assistant, daughter Denise (Darvi), who insists on wearing hot red sweaters and form-fitting clothes on board the sub in spite of being the only woman among sweaty, sex-starved men.
During the initial voyage, they’re shadowed by a Chinese sub, and are forced to defend themselves underwater after the enemy sub sends off multiple torpedoes. Jones’ first island target houses large petrol storage vats, and during the battle to escape the isle, they snatch a Red soldier, who reveals info of an alternate location. When the expedition infiltrates the secret base, they discover a plan to disgrace the U.S. and heap blame for a nuclear disaster on America, creating a new world war. By the final reel, every man (and woman) does their duty to stop the Red nuclear madness, and lives are lost along the way.
Basic Pros & Cons
Sam Fuller’s direction is his patented no-nonsense style: the dialogue is snappily delivered, the action is first-rate, and there’s always a sense of danger looming; when the sub is idling, one always doubts its seaworthiness, and suspects existing leaks will flood the craft and drown half the crew.
Fortunately for Darvi, her role is fairly simple: she’s the sexual tease for the men – including smart-ass sonar man ‘Ski’ Brodski (Cameron Mitchell) – and has only one ‘big’ emotional scene, but unfortunately she’s also trapped in a worthless role co-written by a sexist director. Fuller could write strong-willed women, as in the case of Forty Guns (1957), but their masculine traits eventually become subjugated when a ‘real man’ becomes a romantic partner (hence the flip-flop finale of Forty Guns).
In a ridiculous ‘medical inspection’ scene, Darvi is weirdly man-handled and groped by Widmark, and when she has to deliver full dramatic gravitas after confessing she’s the professor’s daughter, her voice kind of squeals – a performance flaw that could’ve been fixed with some through studio training or private tutoring. As a romantic interest, though, Darvi’s fine (they kiss under the dim redness of the sub’s energy-saving lights), and the writers exploited her linguistic skills by having her and the professor discuss matters in French, and in Darvi’s first scene with the sub’s crew she speaks a few words in German, Chinese, and Italian.
Interestingly, Fuller doesn’t bother subtitling any of the non-English dialogue, and a number of father-daughter exchanges contain mere banalities which don’t have any dramatic value. Clearly, these contrivanves were written to pad out Darvi’s role, because as long as the professor remains an active character in the film, poor Denise (er, Darvi) has little to do.
Not unlike George Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955), the ethnic and cultural makeup among the crew is filled with former WWII allies and conquered territories – namely countries that fell under American might but benefitted from its aide during postwar reconstruction. Because Germany and Japan were U.S. allies in 1954, the represented characters are willing to sacrifice their lives against nuclear terror; the same good-heartedness applies to the token Italian and Chinese characters, with the latter presumably from allied controlled Hong Kong, Singapore, or Macao.
Hell benefits from high production values, including great action sequences (the fuel storage raid is blazingly spectacular), and fine underwater models for the sub battle. Alfred Newman’s score is best when not quoting his heroic theme (it sounds like a pastiche of prior flag-waving efforts); his stripped-down suspense cues are otherwise superb.
Among the supporting cast is prolific character actor Richard Loo (who also appeared in Fuller’s The Steel Helmet) and Mitchell, who alongside co-star David Wayne, also appeared in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).
Hell initially globe-trots from Japan to Germany (there’s a wide single shot of the Brandenburg Gate, cleared of wartime rubble, and perhaps quickly filmed during the shooting of Fox’ Berlin-based ‘scope production The Night People), and while most of the film takes place inside the rickety submarine, Fuller would revisit Japan in his next film, via his surreal noir drama House of Bamboo (1955).
Extras & Wrap-Up
Widmark’s next two films for Fox – Garden of Evil (1954) and Broken Lance (1954) – would be his last for the studio, whereas Darvi was quickly cast in the big budget antiquities drama The Eqyptian [M] (1954) with costars Victor Mature, Edmund Purdon, and Jean Simmons; and The Racers (1955), with Kirk Douglas, Gilbert Roland, and Cesar Romero.
Her affair with Zanuck yielded the end of her film career at Fox, although she appeared in a smattering of TV projects and French films before committing suicide in 1971 at the age of 42.
Fox’ DVD includes an excellent transfer of the ‘scope film in its 2.55:1 wide ratio, and a decent stereophonic sound mix – two technical wonders heavily touted in the film’s trailer and within press book promotional pap.
There’s also a 1999 Biography episode, Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters, which provides a solid overview of his early years as a teacher, radio & stage actor, his auspicious film debut as a giggling psychotic killer in Kiss of Death (1947), his period at Fox, the freelancing years, and final years in smaller parts before quitting acting in 1992.
There are testimonies from daughter Anne Heath, friends / colleagues Sidney Poitier and Robert Wagner (the latter with whom he costarred in Broken Lance), and Karl Malden, who directed Time Limit (1957), the first of 3 films starring & produced by Widmark. (The other films are The Trap, from 1959, and The Secret Ways from 1961.) Perhaps the most fascinating ephemera in the Biograpy episode are clips from 16mm colour film shot by Widmark when he travelled to Germany and wanted to witness the rise of Hitler in all its terrifying hysteria. The footage included wide shots of a Hitler Youth camp, with kids exercising and learning combat tricks in front of a giant wooden gate on which sway giant Nazi flags and military symbols.
Fox’ DVD offers a great package of the classic film, but the focus of the extras are is solely on Widmark, and there’s no attention given to Darvi nor Fuller beyond the publicity excerpts – aspects which could’ve been covered in a feature-length commentary track.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan
Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review