DVD: Fire Down Below (1957)

August 26, 2016 | By

FireDownBelow1957Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Sony

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 10, 2004

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: After agreeing to transport a socialite-refugee between islands, the friendship between two seamen is ultimately tested, and destroyed.

Special Features:  (none)




After the presumably middling success of her three-picture comeback between 1952-1953, Rita Hayworth stepped away from films again, returning four years later with Fire Down Below, a peculiar choice given Hayworth’s character Irena – a mysterious, sultry dame with a shady past – disappears from the story for almost the entire last half hour.

This reasonably steamy adaptation of Max Catto’s novel is ostensibly about two seamen whose main business – hauling illegal if not grey level cargo between the south sea islands – and friendship is tested when they reluctantly accept an easy job to ferry a wealthy socialite to a new isle where she can restart her life.

Catto’s story, as adapted by author and occasional screenwriter Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) bears some striking similarities to Hayworth’s Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), where a woman with a troubled past evades the law by island hopping to a new job, and hopefully a new life. Instead of a prostitute, Hayworth’s Irena is a sort of Lithuanian WWII expat and (as inferred) a camp survivor who gave herself to officials and wealthy men to ensure both safety and comfort.

When Irena charters a discrete ride with Felix (Robert Mitchum) and Tony (Jack Lemmon) for $1000 cash, it sets in motions infatuations that seed jealousy. Felix is mean and makes a point to verbally cut up Irena, whereas Tony develops a major crush, becoming protective and ultimately defending his love’s honor in a fistfight-wrestling match with his buddy until the ship’s third mate Jimmy Jean (The Roots of Heaven‘s handsome Edric Connor) separates the pair.

By the time the ship reaches its island destination, Felix is alone and without a crew, and Tony shacks up with Irena who still treats him with little more than palpable chilliness. After being double-crossed by Felix in a risky smuggling job, Tony eventually flees and finds work on a merchant ship, and that’s when the narrative jumps ahead in time, introducing new characters and a kind of disaster film finale in which Tony’s trapped in the belly of a cargo ship packed with smoldering explosives, a mess of steel girders, and a harbormaster (Herbert Lom, also to appear in Roots of Heaven) who presses the ship’s captain to tug the derelict vessel away from the town where it can explode without harm.

A spiritual-minded doctor (Bond franchise veteran Bernard Lee) acts as a go-between to reunite the doomed Tony with Felix, and Irena, who ran back to Tony’s old pal because of stronger feelings. If by some miracle he manages to escape from the ship, Tony still intends to kill his double-crossing pal to even the score for ruining his life and taking his girl.

The finale is quite perfunctory, performed with a reserve that suggests an ending tacked on to once again steer the film away from serious doom & gloom. Had Tony’s fate been more combustible, the finale would’ve left two lovers forced to live with regret, guilt, and perhaps distrust for each other, but for the sake of Hayworth fans and to ensure better box office odds, things more or less end well. Near-death is avoided (as is the recurring choice of amputation), a revenge killing is averted, and although the two former pals don’t shake, hug, or make amends, Tony walks away, cuing ‘The End’ caption.

The composing triumvirate of Arthur Benjamin, Douglas Gamley, and Kenneth V. Jones feels like a troupe offering built-in insurance to cover the film’s frequent tonal straddling near the borders of revenge, overt cruelty, and even film noir. What flows throughout is an uneven score that similarly establishes a light tone, supports a dance number, repeatedly spins the film’s title song to sell the soundtrack album and keep the tone amiable, and then switches to more grave dramatic cues for the disaster-styled finale.

Fire’s music isn’t schizophrenic, but there are sequences mid-film that are clearly Serious and Dramatic that have been slapped with lofty material more typical of an adventure tale in some exotic locale. The composers draw from the Caribbean locations, but as in the carnival sequence that climaxes with a hot & bothered Hayworth number, we see street musicians performing festive island music, but we hear a lush Hollywood score that makes certainly the early sections of the carnival sequence unfold almost like a silent movie.

Like Gilda (1946), Hayworth’s dance is designed to enrage the man she loves, and a man who refuses to admit he’s hooked on her, echoing the jealousy and double-crossing elements of noir; perhaps the tone of the final scene makes more sense if the film is regarded as a noir, redressed with Caribbean locales and highly filtered impressions of its culture.

The script also doesn’t shy away from echoing a bit of the trapped characters in Casablanca (1942), where in Fire a sleazy hotel manager (Eric Pohlman) touches Irene’s hand one night, offering to put in a good word with local authorities and keep her safe if she does him a few favours. As word gets around of a hot European chick laying low in town, it’s only a matter of time before someone digs a little, discovers she’s wanted, and figures out a way to make a little money. There’s no doubt the ‘friendly’ manager will turn on Irene and collect a reward when he’s received some personal favours from his guest, and from prior experiences, she reads him well and urges Tony to start packing and move to a safer locale.

Fire is a dark film that’s initially camouflaged by some sharp, acerbic repartee between Tony and Felix, as well as barman Miguel (future Goldfinger lyricist Anthony Newley) who has perhaps some of the film’s funniest lines, and like a classic noir, sexual tension bleeds from the heroine whenever she’s onscreen. It’s worth noting that although the Howard Hughes noirish SuperScope suspense-drama Underwater! (1955) is ultimately a cheat, failing to exploit the considerable physical assets of star Jane Russell, Fire director Robert Parrish has no problem exploiting Hayworth in CinemaScope by having her draped across the screen in a more than teasing bow scene where Tony tries to converse with suntanning Irene. (One suspects Parrish was taking a cue from Fox’s 1953 production How to Marry a Millionaire, which featured Marilyn Monroe sprawled across the screen in CinemaScope’s then super-wide 2.55:1 ratio.)

Irena is also one of Hayworth’s coldest and least verbose roles. She’s often cast as the bruised woman with a dark past; or the temptress who destroys with her beauty, song, and sultry physicality (Blood and Sand); or the thorn who keeps two naturally attracted lovers apart by offering money, fame, and herself (Pal Joey). Hayworth’s characters are rarely happy, but they put on a veneer of fake joy because of a  reticence to come to terms with the past – aspects of Hayworth’s persona that suited such characters, because with a single close-up of her steel yet saddened look-a-way, not unlike Monroe, one saw some depth of her pain. The chief difference between Monroe and Hayworth’s wounded persona lies in the former’s bruised little girl image, and Hayworth being the seasoned, stoic adult: she’s initially affecting, but ultimately unapproachable because of a seasoned ability to maintain a wide distance between her character and everyone else in a drama.

As a drama, Fire is a product of its time, built to fulfill the needs of its stars, studio, and audiences. Tonal shifts aside, there are many unique moments that make the film memorable in spots – Tony’s scenes in the doomed ship are tautly directed by former editor-turned director Parrish ( winning an Oscar for Best Editing for Body and Soul, and being nominated for All the King’s Men) – not to mention the supporting actors, some of whom had ties to co-producer Albert R. Broccoli, who along with Harry Saltzman, would launch the Bond franchise with Dr. No in 1962.

Whereas Mitchum didn’t need to prove himself as a dramatic actor (his next film, the south seas WWII romance Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, is one of his best), Lemmon had to show Columbia he could work the arc of his character from a wise-cracker to an earnest lover, and a man in desperate straights. Mister Roberts (1955) and the later Bell Book and Candle (1958) where more overtly comedic, whereas Fire and Cowboy (1958), the latter with Gilda’s Glenn Ford, seemed like golden opportunities for the actor to show the studio and its chief he was more than a light, broad-faced comedic actor.

Hayworth would appear in another cluster of films – Pal Joey (1957), Separate Tables (1958), the dour They Came to Cordura (1959), and The Story on Page One (1959) – before her career became affected by rumours of heavy drinking, and the cruelties of Alzheimer’s. Between 1961-1972, Hayworth would appear in 9 films, ending with The Wrath of God with Fire co-star Mitchum.

Other novels by Max Catto (aka Simon Kent) adapted into films include A Prize of Gold (1955), Trapeze (1956), A Hill in Korea (1956), Seven Thieves (1960), The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961), and Murphy’s War (1971).

Parrish would direct Mitchum in the underrated western The Wonderful Country (1959) and briefly in The Lusty Men (1952) when Nicholas Ray fell ill for a short period.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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