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Hell and High Water

Hell and High Water(1954)

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The great writer-director Samuel Fuller has been getting some welcome DVD attention recently with his early pictures. Fixed Bayonets! (1951) was released earlier in 2007, and on the way this summer are his first three films: I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1952). (Please, someone, release Park Row [1952] !!) In the meantime, Fox Home Entertainment has issued Hell and High Water (1954). A big hit of its day, it's one of Fuller's least-heralded and least personal pictures, with a story that is perhaps best described as workmanlike, but it's also a lot better than this reviewer expected. Any Sam Fuller movie, after all, is cause for great interest.

In truth, Fuller himself recognized Hell and High Water as a minor credit on his resume, calling it "easily my least favorite picture, though it wasn't a stinker." He wrote in his autobiography, A Third Face, that he felt this way because the movie didn't come from his own story. Instead he took the assignment as a personal favor to Darryl Zanuck. (More on that later.) Fuller did rewrite the script, however, to suit his style a little more.

Richard Widmark plays a former submarine captain lured to Tokyo by a group of scientists, businessmen, and ex-military officers. They want Widmark to take their salvaged Japanese sub and lead a mission to Arctic waters to investigate reports of an atom bomb being built by "the Communists." Widmark may choose his own crew from his old war buddies (Fuller stalwart Gene Evans among them), but two nuclear scientists will have to travel on board as well - a father-daughter team played by Victor Francen and Bella Darvi.

What follows is a straightforward submarine movie with the characters finding some trouble along the path to their destination, but the cat-and-mouse play with an enemy Chinese sub is handled OK, and Fuller keeps things more interesting than they deserve to be thanks to good pacing and occasional flourishes. Some examples: showing the opening credits over the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion; one character getting his finger stuck in the hatch as the sub makes an emergency descent (only one way to solve that crisis...); and a crewmember being brutally bludgeoned to death after extracting information from a captured Chinese. When everyone learns the Reds are going to use an American plane to drop a bomb on Korea, it's all hands on deck to entertainingly drop said plane from the sky. In defense of this last sequence, consider Fuller's approach: "I reworked Hell and High Water into a stylized, cartoonish tale, like Spielberg would achieve later on with Raiders of the Lost Ark." Also worth a mention is that tracer rounds are shown firing from machine guns, an unusual (and cool) sight for a movie of this era.

Newcomer Bella Darvi was a Polish model and concentration camp survivor whose Hollywood career ended quickly and whose life ended tragically. Darryl Zanuck and his wife Virginia discovered her while in Europe and brought to Hollywood. They even came up with her screen surname, "Darvi," by combining the names "Darryl" and "Virginia." But before too long, Virginia discovered that Darryl was having an affair with the young beauty. After three American films, Darvi returned to Europe, acted in some more movies and racked up severe gambling debts before committing suicide in 1971 in Monte Carlo. In Hell and High Water, she's a pretty girl with not too much to do, but she does hold her own on screen against Richard Widmark.

The ad campaign of the day heavily promoted the fact that Hell and High Water was shot in CinemaScope, a very new process. The film was very much an experiment for Fox to see how 'Scope would work in confined settings like the interior of a submarine. (Obviously it was a perfect format for the exteriors.) Fuller wrote, "Like other directors, I was initially suspicious of CinemaScope." He met with the inventor of the process, Henri-Jacques Chretien, who gave him an anamorphic lens for Fuller's own 16mm camera so that Fuller could practice. Fuller also noticed that the films which had been shot in 'Scope so far contained very little camera movement and felt overly stagy.

He wrote, "I told Zanuck I was going to have a lot of camera movement. 'Do whatever you want with the darn camera,' Darryl told me. 'Just make people forget it's CinemaScope.' ...So I had the camera moving all the time. I panned it. I put it on boom. I did dolly shots inside the submarine. I even staged the final fight scene like a ballet, with the goddamned camera swinging all over the place."

Fuller spent some time aboard a real sub as research. "I wanted to give the audience the visceral emotion of being cooped up underwater," he recalled. "I'd spent no more than fifteen hours under the Pacific on that U-boat, yet it was like being buried alive. Weeks on end would drive you completely nuts."

Fuller seems to imply in his autobiography that Zanuck wanted him to direct Hell and High Water, a blatantly anti-Communist tale, as a result of J. Edgar Hoover's personal disapproval of Fuller's previous film, Pickup on South Street (1953), in which the main character (also played by Widmark) is far more interested in himself than in any flag-waving. In the memoir, Fuller recounts a lunch meeting in Hollywood with Zanuck and Hoover in which Hoover personally complained about Pickup.

But Fuller did not consider this film political. "I don't make propaganda films," he wrote. "I'm only interested in one thing: a good story. If the story has conflict, there's action. If there's action, there's emotion. That's what I call a movie."

Fox has packaged Hell and High Water with the following extras: a trailer, a stills gallery, an interactive original pressbook and a 1999 episode of Biography on Richard Widmark. The widescreen transfer maintains the 'Scope ratio and the sound is in stereo, just as in the original release, making Alfred Newman's overwrought score even more so.

For more information about Hell and High Water, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Hell and High Water, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold