Hell Below Zero
A big moneymaker for Paramount, Shane (1953) was the beginning of the end for the studio and star Alan Ladd. Fed up with the meager budgets and banal scripts, Ladd petitioned for an early release and signed a three-picture separation agreement, of which Shane was the first. Ladd next appeared alongside James Mason in the Technicolor costumer Botany Bay (1953) but he never made good on the third and final film, opting instead to repay Paramount $135,000. Part of Ladd's new agreement with Warner Brothers allowed him to work with any studio of his choice. He accepted a big paycheck to appear in Universal's foreign legion actioner Desert Legion (1953) and then inked his three-picture deal with Warwick. In the summer of 1952, the entire Ladd family sailed to England, setting up house in a Surrey cottage near Shepperton Studios. Although the money was good, Ladd grew depressed by the mediocrity of these for-hire projects. The actor was still mourning the poisoning death of the family dog prior to setting sail and was living with discomfort from a hand injury suffered during the production of Warners' The Iron Mistress (1952). Even worse, the British press greeted Ladd's presence with unveiled contempt, angry that an American was taking roles that should have gone to native actors.
Ladd suffered a leg injury shortly before beginning The Black Knight, leaving many of his action scenes to be shot using a double. Back in the States, Shane was reaping big box office and critical kudos but Paramount put its weight behind William Holden for the "Best Actor" Oscar®. Holden did win the statue for Stalag 17 (1953) while a disappointed Ladd moved on to producing and starring in projects generated by his own Warners-based company, Jaguar Pictures.
The tale of an American who signs aboard an Arctic whaling ship, Hell Below Zero had put Ladd in the room with an uncommonly high caliber supporting cast. Shakespearean actors Basil Sydney and Niall MacGinnis had both appeared in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), while leading lady Joan Tetzel also had an estimable theatrical career (and would originate the role of Nurse Ratched in the 1963 Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opposite Kirk Douglas). Returning to the Warwick payroll after a bit as a jump instructor in The Red Beret (in which he was dubbed by the considerably less Welsh John van Eyssen), Stanley Baker was more than a match for Ladd as the heavy of the piece. Malaysia-born Jill Bennett was fresh from the set of John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952) and well on her way to distinguishing herself as a commanding dramatic actress of stage and screen. Cast in the minor role of Ulvik, Edward Hardwicke was the son of Sir Cedric Hardwicke but is perhaps best known to modern audiences for playing Dr. Watson to Jeremy Brett's nervy Sherlock Holmes in Granada Television's The Return of Sherlock Holmes from 1986 to 1988.
Hell Below Zero was directed by Mark Robson, a one-time protégé of producer Val Lewton at RKO. Not an auteur of the level of Jacques Tourneur or a populist such as Robert Wise, Robson has long been stuck with the label of "workman" and was the recipient of very little praise during his long career. Nonetheless, the Canadian native's curriculum vitae is studded with cult favorites, including The Seventh Victim (1943), Peyton Place (1957) and the camp classic Valley of the Dolls (1967).
Albert "Cubby" Broccoli remains most famous, of course, for being half of the team responsible for backing the long-running James Bond franchise beginning with Dr. No in 1962. Broccoli turned to Ian Fleming's source novels when rights to adapt the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were denied by the estate of author Arthur Conan Doyle. Complicating matters was the fact that Broccoli's partner, Irving Allen, was dead set against optioning Fleming's novels, which he considered poorly written. Partly due to this impasse but also stemming from the failure of their daring The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), the Warwick partnership was dissolved. Broccoli formed Eon Productions in 1961 with Harry Saltzman, a military intelligence officer turned theatrical impresario. What Saltzman lacked in business acumen he made up for with sheer chutzpah and urged his new partner to gamble $50,000 for a six month option to the James Bond character. That bet paid off in spades, making Broccoli and Saltzman millionaires. (A few years later, poorer but wiser Irving Allen jumped on the Bond wagon by acquiring the rights to Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm spy novels.) Not only was Hell Below Zero produced by a future money-man of the James Bond franchise but the adaptation of Hammond Innes' novel The White South was penned by Richard Maibaum, scenarist of all but one of the 007 films from Dr. No to Licence to Kill (1989). Hell Below Zero even filmed on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios, where interiors for many a Bond vehicle were shot.
Producer: Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli, George Willoughby
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Richard Maibaum, Max Trell, Hammond Innes (novel)
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Film Editing: John D. Guthridge
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky
Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Alan Ladd (Duncan Craig), Joan Tetzel (Judie Nordhal), Basil Sydney (Bland), Stanley Baker (Erik Bland), Joseph Tomelty (Capt. McPhee), Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Howe).
by Richard Harland Smith
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