Sam Fuller is one of these iconic directors that
independent film makers like Quentin Tarantino andRobert Rodrigues idolize for being a maverick
who frequently got away with making movies his own way, even if the studios
that employed him didn’t always like it. But even though he preferred to make
hard hitting, semi-expose movies like “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss,”
Fuller also knew which side of the bread was buttered and could make a movie
that both he and his studio bosses knew could be a commercial success. “Hell
and High Water” (1954), released by 20th Century Fox, is one of those. Made at
the height of the Cold War, it capitalized on America’s fear of the atom bomb,
the Red Menace, and catered to the belief that private individuals can sometime
be more effective than government at solving the world’s problems.
A group of such individuals, scientists from around the
world, want to investigate suspicious activities on an island in the North
Atlantic by the Chinese communists (though their nationality is never
mentioned).They hire former submarine
commander Capt. Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) to take them to the island in a
rebuilt Japanese sub (the kind that Captain Jones calls “a sewer pipe”). The
scientists suspect that the island is being used as the site for the building
of an atom bomb and are scheming to start WW III. Fuller had a hand in writing
the screenplay as well as directing and so Capt. Jones is your typical Fuller
hero. He’s tough, he’s brash, he’s honest, and he’s cynical. He agrees to take
the idealistic scientists to their destination but only because they’ll pay him
50 G’s to do it.
He assembles some of his old crew, including Gene Evans
(a Fuller regular), and Cameron Mitchell, the sub’s sonar man. The lead
scientist in charge of the expedition is Professor Montel (Victor Franken), who
is fond of saying: “Every man has his own reason for living, and his own price
for dying.” Just for the sake of spicing things up a bit, the old professor
brings along an assistant-- a sexy young French female scientist played by
Bella Darvi. Darvi’s personal story is both interesting and tragic. She was
discovered in Monaco by Darryl Zanuck and his wife Virginia. Mrs. Zanuck
thought she had star potential and even created Bella’s screen name. Darvi is a
combination of Darryl and Virginia. She made only three Hollywood movies before
a sex scandal involving Zanuck broke out, causing Virginia Zanuck to split.
Darvi’s career never really took off and after the scandal she returned to
Europe where she eventually committed suicide at age 42.
But to return to our story, of course, the presence of a
woman on board a salvaged Japanese sub manned by a bunch of horny, sweaty guys
is a totally believable thing and isn’t going to cause any sort of plot
complication. But then believability isn’t a word you’d associate with “Hell
and High Water.” Especially not when the sub encounters another submarine, (Chinese?
I guess, who knows for sure) demanding to know what the hell they’re doing
there. What follows is the usual cat and mouse sequence you find in most
submarine movies. After a torpedo is fired at them, they dive for the bottom.
The torpedoes on Jones’s sub don’t work because they didn’t have time to get
them in working order before they started out. They stay there trying to not
make any noise so they don’t get pinged by sonar. The other sub lands a few
hundred yards away and they try to outwait each other. Finally, Jones and his
men have had enough and the captain orders the ship to make a break for it.
He’s got a new plan. He rams the “sewer pipe” into the other sub and sinks it.
Hooray, the good guys win. But wait. This is supposed to be a peaceful
scientific expedition. What about all the Chinese sailors (or whatever they are)
killed on the other sub? Wouldn’t that be like an international incident?
Wouldn’t that actually be an act of war itself that might lead to WWIII, just
the very think they were trying to prevent?
Well, never mind about that, what’s more important is
that they are on their way now to find out what’s happening on that mysterious
island. And even more important, Captain Jones and the lady scientist are
getting quite cozy when the sub’s red lights go on. They turn them on to save
oxygen, it’s explained. (Make of that what you will.)
So they get to their destination and find out there’s
nothing going on there. What? After all that? They had bad info, but new
intelligence indicates there’s another nearby island where something is happening. Captain Jones says: “So
what? I was hired to take you this far and now we’re going home.” (Or in words
to that effect.) Prof. Montel points out the fine print in his contract that
says they don’t go home until he’s
satisfied. And he’s not. So rather than lose his pay, Jones takes them to the
It turns out that those crazy Chinese or whatever they
were had a plan to make an A-bomb and drop it on Manchuria or Korea and say the
U.S. did it. They had a tricked up old American B-29 that was going to drop it
on them. There’s some heroics and a bit of idealistic nobility on display at
the climax, and the big finish has the whole crew of the sewer pipe on deck shooting
off their hand guns and rifles at the bomber as it leaves on its dastardly
mission. Do they stop the plane and prevent WW III? Well, what do you think?
“Hell and High Water,” despite it’s preposterous and
unbelievable script, is worth your time if you’re in the mood for an old
fashion melodrama with a comic book plot. Widmark’s performance holds the whole
thing together, and Bella Darvi strikes a blow for women’s equality. It’s not
one of Fuller’s greatest movies, but it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour
and a half. Twilight Time has done another great job transferring this film to
Blu-ray. The wide CinemaScope aspect ratio in 1080p presents the film as it
would have been seen in theaters of the 1950. The color is vivid. Four track
stereo sound is beautifully recreated in 5.1 Dolby Stereo. Alfred Newman’s
heroic score sounds terrific and can be heard on an isolated audio track. Bonus
features include a segment of “Biography” that presented the highlights of
Widmark’s long career in movies, as well as a couple of the original trailers.The release is limited to 3,000 editions and contains a collector's booklet with extensive liner notes by Julie Kirgo.