Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Fire, Water, All of It!

How can a movie that gets so much wrong be so damned good? 1954's Hell and High Water (not to be confused with 2016's Hell or High Water) is a sweaty, Red Scare submarine spy film filled with racial stereotypes and sexist attitudes that bizarrely actually seems to mean well as regards race and sex. This Samuel Fuller film succeeds on pure, pulpy, gargantuan Cinemascope attitude.

According to Wikipedia, Steven Spielberg revealed to Fuller in the early 80s that he kept a print of Hell and High Water in the trunk of his car. The film feels very Spielbergian--it obviously had influence on all the submarine material in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But there's a dedication to hitting character emotional beats to string along the logic of the story, for the characters always to be touching each other's nerves, that feels very Spielberg in a more fundamental way.

I was also reminded of Star Trek II in the submarine battles and the use of an oddly triumphant Alfred Newman score for all the action scenes. And there's a giddy nightmare quality to the juxtaposition of the crew fighting over the woman on board, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), with their submarine winning a blind fight with a Chinese sub accompanied by fanfare.

The film begins with a series of stock shots of London and Rome and then the story starts in a place that's supposedly Tokyo. A few kanji characters on a wall are the only clues as Adam Jones (Richard Widmark), a World War II veteran submarine captain, hangs about, irritable and wondering why he's there.

He's been called by no government but a secret organisation of civilian scientists from all over the world who are concerned about evidence of Chinese nuclear tests on an island north of Japan. Jones doesn't want any of this nonsense but agrees to help for fifty grand and a crew of his old American comrades in the Japanese sub he uses to take Professor Montel (Victor Francen) to the island.

It's lucky Montel brings his beautiful assistant along because she's the only one who can read the Japanese labels on all the equipment. How did they get a Japanese sub without a Japanese crew or anyone who speaks Japanese? The movie's too busy being fucking awesome to worry about that and moves right along.

Bella Darvi's not nearly as interesting as she is in The Egyptian and is generally rather demure in contrast to the volatile Captain Jones who seems to be running on all ornery but mostly accurate instincts. She throws at him a bad decision he made that cost him dearly back in the war and there's a conflict between his two fisted way of doing things and her sensitive rationality. They hate each other but they can't resist each other. Neither can stand it when the other one is right but is made terribly vulnerable by the resultant insecurity and everyone gets sweaty when they have to turn off the fans to run silent and to conserve power they use red light . . .

It's so bad but so, so good. Even with the poor stereotype Chinese crewman on board who sings a weird alternate English version of "Don't Fence Me In" in order to fit in. His character's more adorable than human but seems to be Fuller's genuine attempt at saying, "We hate Communism, not the people of China."

The film's climax was absurd but I was completely invested in what was happening. This movie has heart, damnit, some things you just can't explain.

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