Saturday, August 27, 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Hell and High Water (Sam Fuller, 1954)


I caught this movie a couple of years back and while I can't attest to its artistic brilliance, I have a soft spot for its b-movie thrills.

A cold war caper made by 20th Century Fox, this involves a crew of WWII vets re-fitting an old Japanese u-boat to find out what is going on at a mysterious island in the far north of the Pacific ocean.


Starring Richard Widmark as the u-boat's reluctant captain, and steered by he-man filmmaker Sam Fuller, Hell and High Water is a splashy comic book of a movie with vivid widescreen cinematography and an overheated score courtesy of Alfred Newman.

The plot is cheesy, and the characters are stock, but the whole thing is played with an unpretentious sense of fun that makes all the cliches go down easy.

It's a weird mix of old school studio gloss and pulp thrills -- the widescreen photography and presence of a big star like Widmark can't help but carry a certain glamour, yet these elements are juxtaposed against a plot straight out of a 1940s adventure serial and the studio head's latest squeeze as the female lead.


Bella Darvi was studio honcho Darryl Zanuck's girlfriend at the time, and he spent a few years trying to make her into a movie star. Hell and High Water was a decent-sized hit and represents the high water mark of her short-lived career. Her performance is fine, but it is easy to see why she didn't go onto much more.


There really isn't much more to the plot: Widmark and co. go to the island, fight a duel with another sub, Darvi's dad sacrifices himself for the team, Widmark and Darvi fall in love and the crew make a final raid on the island to stop the Reds dropping a nuke on Seoul. Cue fireball and credits.


Apparently Steven Spielberg is a big fan of this movie, and it is easy to see some of its DNA in the Berg's Indiana Jones movies. At least, that's what Sam Fuller says in his extremely entertaining autobiography.

Speaking of Fuller, this is an odd match of filmmaker and material. Fuller is more well known for hard-hitting nourish dramas like Pick-Up on South Street (a great movie which also stars Widmark), Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and White Dog. 

While it is not as good as those films, Hell and High Water is a neat little spin on the man-on-a-mission template that makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes.

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