BR: Underwater! (1955)

April 1, 2020 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  Warner Archives

Region: A

Released:  January 28, 2020

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Romance

Synopsis: Two treasure hunters, a babe, an orphaned socialite, and a priest search for a golden statue while evading a group of unscrupulous salvagers.

Special Features:  (none)




Hailed in the original theatrical trailer as taking 3 years to make and costing $3 million dollars (ha!), Underwater! was also RKO’s first Superscope film – the studio’s own anamorphic process branded by some critics as ‘the poor man’s CinemaScope (launched by Fox in 1953). The embarrassing irony is that rival studio United Artists beat RKO to the theatres by releasing their own star-studded Superscope romp, Vera Cruz, in 1954 – a move that kind of neutered all the hoopla RKO later poured into the Underwater! premiere, which is said to have actually occurred ‘underwater’.

In 1955, producer / RKO studio Tsar Howard Hughes was nearing the end of his messy flirtation with filmmaking: in less than 10 years, he eroded the fortunes and stature of the minor-major by personally focusing on and tinkering with mediocre or embarrassing projects (Jet Pilot, Vendetta, The Conqueror); and he often caused budget overruns because of reshoots, musical-chair directors, or building new sets (His Kind of Woman).

If Underwater! actually cost $3 million, none of that cash shows up on the screen. The interior sets are very stagy and the lighting is hard and flat, the editing is rough in spots, and for all the publicity concerning co-star Jane Russell in a bathing suit, actual tease moments last for a few scant seconds; with few exceptions, her figure and assets are often positioned behind ship booms, baggy shirts, or chunky diving gear.

Hughes spent a fortune supervising ad campaigns and supposedly designing bras for Russell, but Underwater! is mostly a cheat, and one wonders if director John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), reduced Russell’s exposure in the editing room just to raise Hughes’ ire for being a bothersome presence, or perhaps felt Hughes’ boob obsession was not going to dominate the film, as the millionaire tooted in the pre-release campaign art.

Underwater! does have sufficient assets to make it a successful tale of treasure-hunting, but the variable production values and flaccid script worked over by three credited writers pretty much fail to deliver any excitement until the final reel, when Johnny Gray (muscular Richard Egan) and Cuban buddy Dominic (equally taut Gilbert Roland) rescue Johnny’s pseudo-Cuban wife Theresa (Russell) from the wreckage of a 17th century cargo ship before it snaps in half and tumbles down an abyss with its valuable cargo of gold.

The film was designed as mainstream escapism with the exotic ingredients of furniture babes (Russell, and pretty blonde Lori Nelson), and vivid underwater photography, and it’s the latter that really impresses, given few films at the time designed whole sequences with practical lighting and elaborate sets in a large tank, especially for widescreen. (Fox’s Boy on a Dolphin sports a similar tale of searching for golden treasure, yet in spite of the magnificent Greek locations, the diving scenes are very much in a heavily prop-filled aquarium.)

The massive sunken ship is an impressive set, but its supposedly excellent condition after 300 years (we see Egan and Roland dive through encrusted but amazingly intact deck levels and pass floating barrels) makes no sense, because in a preceding sequence, the divers visit the man of war ship that accompanied the cargo vessel, which has disintegrated to ghostly canons and small stubs of wood.

Then there’s the quick deduction that relics found by the warship are accurately dated, the bizarre trust everyone has in Dominic after he ‘salts’ the first wreck, and Dominic’s hugely convenient luck in not only convincing babe Gloria (Nelson) to loan him her schooner, but become his girlfriend overnight.

The quartet of happy treasure seekers are also joined by a religious whiz, Father Cannon (Robert Keith), who periodically wears his formal black and white habit not out of duty, but to remind dumber audience members that he’s a deeply religious man who will keep the treasure hunters on an even moral keel.

Cannon’s on again / off again wardrobe changes are completely insane in the humid Caribbean weather, and it’s all part of the film’s poor dramatic continuity, which reaches even sillier heights when the foursome go for an island picnic during a really bad storm. (While the lovers dance and chase each other along the shore, the terrible rear projection footage actually shows their boat being smacked around like a toy by Madre Nature.)


That Damn Song

Composer Roy Webb had the unenviable task of writing a dramatic score for the action and underwater sequences, as well as heavily applying instrumental variations of the film’s theme song, that famously drippy, faux Latin confection “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” with its farting trumpet solos.

Like Webb’s decent score for RKO’s The Sea Chase (1955), every time the film stars share screen space, the love theme drones into gear, and it’s heard again and again whenever a radio plays (as in said picnic scene). Gilbert Roland also whistles the song’s intro bars throughout the film in a trick borrowed from The High and the Mighty, where star John Wayne whistles that film’s shrill title music whenever he’s not talking or smoking. (In retrospect, it paid off, as composer Dimitri Tiomkin won an Oscar.)


Curious Historical Antecedents

Whereas it was safer and economically easier to settle for dry tanks, optical effects, filters, and matte paintings, the desire to exploit current diving lighting and diving gear gives the Underwater! treasure searching sequences a striking modern feel – more so than Fox’ own 1957 CinemaScope production, Boy on a Dolphin.

Director Sturges and cinematographer Harry J. Wild designed the exploration scenes with some inventive reverse angles, and there’s a lot of detailed footage as Dominic and Johnny tear away and discover goodies within the remarkably solid ship. Sturges wisely recognized the value in dramatizing the nuances of diving in a wreck, mapping out the geography in claustrophobic shots which pay off when the characters become trapped.

However, Johnny’s smashing idea to hook the schooner’s winch to ship’s safe door and extract the gold stash from the wreckage ‘like a tooth’ is stunningly boneheaded; the sequence yields plenty of chaos and structural carnage – great eye candy and sound design – but being in the hull of the boat as it’s torn to pieces devalues the intelligence of the lead character a wee bit.

The concluding sequence, as well as the film’s basic plot, will probably feel familiar to ocean treasure fans: whether author Peter Benchley was inspired by the film or felt he could improve on a decent core idea, the action finale is almost identical to The Deep (1977).

Benchley used the same idea of a fragile wreck perched on a ledge over an abyss, and he placed his characters in the same kind of mortal danger, including pirates (modernized as drug dealers) fighting over the ship’s treasure (revised as morphine ampoules), and deadly sharks poking through the vessel (which, in The Deep, ultimately cause some grievous bodily harm). Director Peter Yates’ decision to showcase Jacqueline Bisset in a skimpy, translucent outfit merely followed Hughes’ convention of fixating on Russell’s curves and chest size.

The makers of Underwater! wanted everything to end well, so no one dies, no one is seriously injured, a religiously devout pirate becomes pivotal in fudging his own captain’s plan, and everyone gets a block of gold before parting ways – the polar opposite of a more recent underwater treasure hunt featuring babes, buffed beaus and drug lords, Into the Blue  (2005).





Director John Sturges made two films in 1955 – Underwater! for RKO, and the classic thriller Bad Day at Black Rock for MGM – and made a slew of westerns for the rest of the decade, with the Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1958) and the WWII drama Never So Few (1959) being the exceptions.

Writer Walter Newman’s credits include Ace in the Hole (1951), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and The True Story of Jesse James (1957), and Cat Ballou (1965), and co-writers Hugh King and Robert B. Bailey later switched to TV productions.

Cinematographer Harry J. Wild similarly moved to TV, having worked his way up through shorts and B-movies to film noir (The Big Steal) and several RKO prestige productions starring Jane Russell, such as His Kind of Woman (1952) and Macao (1952), plus the Fox musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). After Underwater! his last feature films where Top of the World (1955) and the ill-fated mess that is The Conqueror (1956), produced by Howard Hughes in CinemaScope and released by RKO.

Jane Russell’s prior Hughes-influenced films include Macao (1952), the goofy faux-noir His Kind of Woman (1951), and The Outlaw (1943). She also co-starred with Egan again in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).

Egan appeared in a number of high profile filmed for other studios, including Love Me Tender (1956), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and A Summer Place (1959), but he’s probably best known for his Fox films, which include Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Hunters (1958), and The 300 Hundred Spartans (1962) before moving into heavy TV work soon after.

Gilbert Roland also co-starred in Fox’ underwater extravaganza, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), but he also appeared in Budd Boetticher’s underrated Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).


The Howard Hughes Legacy

Previously available on DVD in Spain, Underwater! finally made its disc debut via Warner Archives, who are slowly going through the RKO catalogue. The source print is a stunner – there’s barely a mark on this beauty, with the exteriors and even interior shots looking crisp, with perfectly balanced colours. The sound mix is also very clean, allowing us to absorb the nuances of Webb’s non-theme song score cues, and the surprisingly layered sound design in the finale.

When I originally reviewed the Spanish DVD – partially panned &scanned, grainy, zero extras – I’d hoped even this lesser John Sturges film would be loaded with extras on a future Blu-ray. Well, as great as the transfer is, this is another bare bones WA release, and a missed opportunity to offer some needed historical details on where the film sits within the filmographies of the cast, the director, the studio, and Hughes, who would soon lose control of RKO, and see it cease production by 1957.

Perhaps that’s the dilemma of RKO’s back catalogue: the studio made good pictures with major names, but not being part of the top tier majors means it’s less known among more general film fans, and WA may well be more concerned with getting out definitive transfers rather than special editions. Again, a missed opportunity, but fans of Egan, Russell, and Sturges will be surprised – perhaps pleasantly – by the tone and lightness of what was designed to be a glossy entry in the underwater treasure hunting sub-genre.



© 2008 & revised 2020, Mark R. Hasan





External References:
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