BR: Hell in High Water (1954)

July 7, 2012 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: June 13, 2017

Genre: Action / Adventure / Romance / Cold War

Synopsis: A melange of postwar allies and former foes are enlisted to use a secret submarine and get photographic evidence on a potential Red Nuclear Menace.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / 1991 Biography episode: “Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters” (44:17) / 2 Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 

Review:

Preamble

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, 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 would-be starmakers!

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.

 

Basic Story

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 batch reportedly snatched up and taken into deepest darkest Soviet 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 for proof of collaborative malice, 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 (the Spratly Islands, perhaps?) in search of nuclear gear.

Jones handpicks 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 29 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 many 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 cliched 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 alpha flip-flop in the finale of Forty Guns). Says Jones to Montel, “What makes a girl who looks like that get mixed up in science?”

I dunno. Brains? Career ambitions? A sense of duty to better humankind?

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 squeaks – a performance flaw that could’ve been fixed with some thorough 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; in Darvi’s first scene with the sub’s crew (‘One woman and 29 men!’ screams the trailer), she speaks a few words in German, Chinese, and Italian, softening the superstition that women bring bad luck to ocean crafts; and not long afterwards her grasp of Japanese helps a crewman find the right valve that enables the sub to dive.

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 contrivances were written to pad out Darvi’s role, because as long as the professor remains an active character in the film, poor Denise / 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 benefited 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 that still hold their own decades later. The widescreen cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is stunning, and Fox’s exceptional HD transfer offers some brilliant Technicolor reds, especially the ‘red light’ scenes in the sub, and a gorgeous alley shot where Jones is bathed from a streetlamp. The film’s main & end credits freakishly glow in neon red and violet, resembling 3D titles, and all underwater shots are a rich translucent blue.

Alfred Newman’s score is best when not quoting his heroic theme (it sounds like a pastiche of prior flag-waving efforts, if not a bit of Franz Waxman’s Prince Valiant theme); 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). Strangely, Wayne is almost buried among the crew and sort of pops up for the first time as the never-seen doctor who mends Montel’s hand, after which he has a few one-line quips in a few more scenes.

Hell initially globe-trots from France, 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 Japan, 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 (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.

Like Fox’ 2007 DVD, TT’s Blu sports the very wide 2.55:1 wide ratio which preceded the tighter 2.35:1 ratio that soon became the standard for all Fox CinemaScope productions. Hell‘s wide shots suffer from the same side bending typical of the early ‘scope lenses, but where most directors of the format’s early productions stuck with staid wide shots and careful movements, Fuller saw no issues with pans, tracking, close-up, and crane shots, realizing if the action is properly centered, the lens flaws are less evident.

Whereas Fox’s DVD sported stereo 2.0 and 4.0 mixes, TT’s disc offers a 5.1 uncompressed DTS and 2.0 DTS mixes, with the latter offering a bit more volume and oomph. Newman’s score has more detail in the isolated track, and there are some interesting moments when the sub’s avoiding its deadly Chinese counterpart and Newman drapes the audiotrack with an unsettling, resonant bass drone.

Ported over from the Fox disc is 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 Biography episode are clips from 16mm colour film shot by Widmark when he traveled 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.

Still unique to the Fox DVD is the interactive press book that’s packed with vintage promotional pap, whereas TT’s trailers offer two very different campaigns. The first is a teaser trailer that trumpets the wonder of CinemaScope (“The Modern Miracle You See Without Special Glasses!”) using… watercolors drawings … of key scenes, including a crafty cheat substituting Widmark over another actor for a jealous fight scene that occurs between two very different characters. All of the cast headshots (framed within a cheesy porthole) are rendered in faux Norman Rockwell, whereas the second trailer actually features shots from the film with less eruptive ad pap.

Both trailers introduce Bella Darvi as “the sensational new continental discovery,” because any new talent / production chief’s mistress circa 1954 requires an explosive tagline, and Julie Kirgo’s wry liner notes elaborate on the oddness and “ickiness” of Darvi’s awkward naming while the mistress was staying at the Zanuck home, cohabiting with the very married couple.

Kirgo also celebrates the weirdness of Fuller, his independence, and Zanuck who would support filmmakers when a novice like FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover tied to meddle in a business of which he knew nothing. Fuller was ballsy, brash, frank, and had the weirdest style of established Fox directors. Zanuck recognized that Fuller knew how to keep stories moving, put sex, violence, gunplay, and (quite literally) nuclear explosives on screen with gusto, and made it easy for the studio’s marketing department to sell a winner, which Hell proved to be at the box office.

 

 

© 2012; revised 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

IMDB Bella Darvi WikiSoundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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