Review for Hell and High Water
So now I’m reviewing a couple of Samuel Fuller movies being released individually by Eureka, this Hell and High Water and House of Bamboo, both previously released as part of the now deleted Fuller at Fox boxset by Eureka one year ago. And I have to admit that it’s because of a mistake on my part. I saw a bit of the blurb and saw a submarine and a nuclear bomb, and blanking on the titles, I thought this was a post-apocalyptic movie that I have long wanted to watch, On the Beach. Hell and High Water starts and ends with a nuclear bomb, but it’s not that bleak. I was curious about it though, on the surface what seems like an anti-war polemic warning of the ills of nuclear proliferation, but released in 1954, back when nuclear power was still being sold as a panacea for the human race, the magic that would one day lead to robots in every house and flying cars. It also seems to presage the Cuban Missile Crisis by eight years. Prescient warning or popcorn fluff?
When acclaimed scientist Professor Montel goes missing, it makes global news, with some speculation that he may even have defected. The truth is far more esoteric, as Adam Jones, a retired submarine commander finds out when he makes his way incognito to Japan. He’s been summoned for a specific and secretive job, and he’s met by the professor among others, in very clandestine circumstances.
A group of wealthy and influential individuals from across the world have gathered following an aerial reconnaissance of islands north of Japan which revealed something alarming. It seems as if someone is constructing a nuclear weapons facility on one of the islands. They want to hire Jones to take a closer look to get enough evidence to present to the world; although a battered war surplus Japanese sub isn’t the ideal vehicle. Time runs out before it can be repaired to service status, and worse, there will be a woman on board, Professor Montel’s assistant Denise.
Hell and High Water gets a 2.55:1 widescreen 1080p transfer from a 4k restoration. The aspect ratio is correct, the Cinemascope format that preceded the more common anamorphic ratios that we are used to today. Audio comes in the form of PCM 2.0 Mono English with optional SDH subtitles. The image is clear and sharp with excellent and consistent colour. There are a couple of scenes where blacks tend to grey, but this isn’t a constant issue through the film. There is a little anamorphic distortion at the edges of the frame, most obvious during pans. But generally the film has scrubbed up a treat. The effects are really impressive for a film from 1954, with some really impressive model work when it comes to the submarines, while the action scenes are effective and well designed. The audio has a ropy start; the volume levels are low to begin with on this disc and I had my home cinema well past the halfway mark. And early on the dialogue levels seemed to drift, as if certain actors in the scene were miked up, while other weren’t, and their dialogue got lost. This problem resolves past the half hour mark, where dialogue starts sounding more consistent.
This is a limited edition release, just 1000 units (The Fuller at Fox boxset had 2000), so I guess everyone will get the 24-page booklet in the case. There is an essay from Philip Kemp, and a text commentary on the film published posthumously from director Samuel Fuller.
The disc boots quickly to a static menu.
On the disc, you’ll find an audio commentary from author Scott Harrison, a nice, measured commentary, although one that is apt to fly off on a tangent on occasion.
Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters lasts 42:22 and is a profile of the actor made in 1999, featuring an interview with him as well, although there isn’t much of a spotlight on this film.
Finally there is the trailer which lasts 2:03, and comes across as a slideshow of oil painting versions of scenes from the film with a ponderous voiceover.
I was given a harsh reminder last night of why Richard Widmark has never been one of my favourite actors. He’s someone who physically embodies his characters’ emotions in his performances to the point where the contorted portrayals can be distracting, and Hell and High Water is a prime example of Richard Widmark acting. The film isn’t much better to be honest, lacking the drama and tension that its story of nuclear brinksmanship and secret plans for world domination deserve. Much of it is wasted on the bad luck silliness of the ‘sole woman on a submarine’ which was revisited to much better effect in the comedy Operation Petticoat (also available from Eureka) five years later.
There is a good idea behind the film, an interesting story which comes from a realistic premise, even if it goes off in a very James Bond direction. After all, 1962 would see the U.S.S.R. attempt to place nuclear missiles in communist Cuba to menace the United States from a few hundred miles. Here, it is the communist Chinese who are using an island in the North Pacific as a secret base for nuclear weapons. Aerial reconnaissance recognises the build-up, but they need to get people close to confirm the worst. It’s a little odd that it falls to the private sector to do this, a group of influential people who hire Adam Jones as a mercenary to take a battered Japanese submarine and get a closer look.
What they discover is a Chinese plan to start a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and blame the US. It falls to Adam Jones and his crew of mercenaries, the scientist Montel and his assistant Denise to stop World War III before it begins, by which point the film has entered the derring-do of the Ian Fleming novels. But in 1954, this was just one year after the end of the Korean War, a conflict where President Eisenhower had publicly threatened the use of nuclear weapons, so what seems as a far-fetched fantasy today, would have felt a lot more relevant to contemporary audiences.
It’s a good idea for a film, the story should be interesting, the production values are high, and there is even the second act cat and mouse between two subs, replete with silent running and torpedo dodging tactics that should have you at the edge of your seat. But it’s all compromised by an ill-judged romance plot between Adam Jones and Denise which just doesn’t hold water given the seriousness of the story. It’s also a personal thing, but the performances in the film leave me cold as well. Hell and High Water isn’t the film I thought it would be, and I don’t just mean On the Beach. I think it would take the end of the Hollywood studio system, to get away from the formulaic writing and the insistence on leading men and leading ladies in films which didn’t warrant them, for subjects like cold war nuclear brinksmanship to get their due.