Hell and High Water (1954)

Alpha and Omega are conjoined in one of the most memorable of Samuel Fuller’s headline-like cinematic declarations: Hell and High Water begins and ends with bookending shots of an atomic bomb erupting on a sub-Arctic island. Boiling infernal flame and the swelling mushroom cloud arise, a report from the fringes of the world beholding a new frontier in the Atom Age. Hell and High Water is an action-adventure film that straddles modes and attitudes with élan and a likeably distracted streak, as Fuller recast the original story given to him as a stylised piece of gallivanting he later compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fuller made the film as a favour for Darryl F. Zanuck, who had gone to bat for him with the controversies of Pickup on South Street (1953), and dismissed it as the least of his films. But Hell and High Water represents a bridging point in Fuller’s career, perhaps the peak of that career in terms of budget and prestige afforded him, whilst it also marks the point where Fuller’s early oeuvre, with its emphasis on aberrant individuals lost within brutal events and worldly tumult, or characters like the news folk of Park Row (1952) whose passions transmit the events but operate independently of them, changed focus. The broad strokes of Hell and High Water’s geopolitical investigations seem to have facilitated Fuller’s interest in “hot topics” and characters who are more clearly avatars for such ructions, fighting forces within and without. A repeated epigram defines a moral scheme, “Each man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying,” whilst Richard Widmark returns to play another cynical hero, albeit one who, unlike his seedy thief in Pickup, has been left an angry and disillusioned wash-up after patriotic service during the war, but similarly rails against flag-wavers and professional do-gooders. 

The plot has enough angles to sustain a hefty franchise in contemporary terms. Fuller depicts the efforts of an independent, apolitical group of statesmen, scientists, and other grandees who have formed a clandestine internationalist organisation to promote world peace and investigate potential threats to that peace. Famous French scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) vanishes briefly after being mobbed by reporters at Orly Airport. The media and law enforcers assume Montel has been kidnapped by the Soviets, but Montel reappears in Japan as a member of the secret group, along with his assistant, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), who is actually his daughter, working under a pseudonym to assert her independent achievements. The organisation hires Widmark’s character, former US Navy submarine commander Adam Jones, to take charge of a salvaged Japanese submarine and ferry Montel into the remote, barren islands of the Bering Sea, where Montel believes Communists are building a secret missile base. Jones’ fight for his right to self-determination, down to harvesting members of his old sub crew, whilst working officially as a mercenary for hire, surely has the emotional immediacy to it of Fuller satising his own uneasy position as studio-sponsored auteur. Gene Evans, Fuller’s repeat star of his early, cheaper films, turns up as Jones’ cigar-chomping, sceptical subordinate. On the way, an encounter with a submarine that could be Red Chinese or North Korean leads to a violent clash as Jones, unable to match the enemy with torpedoes, has to reach back into his repertoire of tricks to elude the hunter. Much of Hell and High Water’s midsection is concerned with the same sort of submarine hide-and-seek stuff depicted in the likes of The Enemy Below (1957) or Torpedo Run (1963), and Fuller settles for staging the crash dives and underwater manoeuvring with almost throwaway proficiency. 

Fuller is plainly much more interested in his motley crew dynamics and landscapes of primal-futurism than model work action, particularly as he follows up Park Row in offering a boldfaced feminist twist. Denise cuts an intimidating figure of multifarious accomplishment. Echoing the introduction of Joan Weldon’s similarly unexpected chick scientist in Them! the same year, Denise appears as a pair of silk-clad, heel-sporting legs on a ladder, but where Gordon Douglas took the route of dismissing the matter thereafter, Fuller sarcastically makes a Tex Avery cartoon under water. Denise enters the fold of the rude, crude sailors to be met with hostility as a potential Jonah, only for her to quickly calm and cajole them with pledges that she’s a scientist above all. Denise’s assurance gains the crew’s acquiescence but her mere presence sets hormones on the boil: lunkhead helmsman ‘Ski’ Brodski (Cameron Mitchell, alight with impish humour) tries to charm the anthropologically fascinated Denise by showing off his sweaty physique and tattoos real and fake, whilst another gets stewed and tries to force himself on her, forcing Ski to cream him. But it’s Jones who finally makes out with her in the blazing red glow of emergency lights for a moment of high pressure passion. Darvi is remembered as one of the most tragic of Hollywood starlets after being discovered and promoted by her lover Zanuck and his wife Virginia, and then destroyed first critically and then socially, with this and The Egyptian (1954) her only major roles. Her much-heralded faults as an actress, a slow, slightly uncertain diction and thick accent, are apparent in playing Denise. But so are her strengths – an aura of cool intelligence and a physical insouciance that belies her character's effort to present a tight package. Her reaction to Mitchell's chest-baring is a comedic coup that's also a subtle deflation of the cliché of the brainy female iceberg, as Denise delights in his meaty sexuality whilst also finding it slightly hilarious. These traits suit the character and impressed Fuller, and she works well opposite Widmark’s trademark astringent, derisive pith. 

Particularly cool is the scene where Denise is forced to kill a Chinese soldier, gunning him down when her life is in danger. For a moment the lab-grown savant is frozen in shock at having joined the game of soldiers, until Jones grabs her hand, and she immediately snaps back into action: like any good scientist, she knows it’s a case of evolve or die. Fuller’s intention to defang the political thriller side of the film did not remove all of the material’s vision, particularly as Fuller’s readiness to use an overtly anti-Communist gloss, as he had with The Steel Helmet and Pickup on South Street and would again with China Gate (1957), to ply his own agendas of interrogating social attitudes and clearing space for new dialogues about race and gender and sex and class, under the banner of unrepentant Free World prerogative. The submarine is Fuller’s United Nations of scruffy sea salts as Nicholas Ray’s European enclave of bureaucrats and soldiers would be in 55 Days in Peking (1965). Fuller levies this set-up via linguistic humour. Denise’s mastery of Asian languages helps the crew negotiate the workings of the sub. Former enemies of the last great war work with casual ease together only to be thrown into a tither by a pretty woman, who can pacify them because she speaks all their dialects. Chinese immigrant Chin Lee (Wong Artarne) entertains the crew with his witty blend of mangled syntax and pithy slang in a version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” whilst Ski learns to sing chanson Française for Denise’s benefit, and creates his own Bronx-Pigalle patois. Chin Lee eventually volunteers for the dangerous task of posing as a fellow captive to extract information from a captured, deeply indoctrinated Red, and becomes the film’s first or two tragic martyrs to dedication. 

Making only the fourth film to be shot in Cinemascope, Fuller’s delight in unusual cinematic syntax – his creative long takes and radical ways of tackling budgetary lacks and spatial problems with his camerawork – was relatively muted here. But he worked with cameraman Joe McDonald to think up innovative, rule-bending ways to frame and light the submarine interior, and assaulted the tableaux vivant-like stasis of early Cinemascope effectively. Sometimes they cut frames up with clashing and layered geometries, and elsewhere compose shots with attention to lateral lines rather than the vertical, to further squeeze together the top and bottom of the Cinemascope frame, building a sense of claustrophobia. Once Jones and crew reach their destination, the evocation of a blasted, far-flung, jagged extremity littered with secret bases, feels practically neo-mythic, with visions of apocalyptic fires and mysterious, cyclopean installations at the Earth’s distant places, null zones where superpowers fashion doomsday devices. Moments of jagged corporeal assault recur with a customary sense of weight – Denise’s shooting of the soldier, Montel getting his thumb caught in the conning tower hatch requiring swift amputation, Chin Lee beaten to death with a monkey wrench. Tracer bullets and erupting oil drums, smoke-trailing bombers and the boiling ocean where an island was moments before: all exist on a continuum of humankind’s gift for creating ever more spectacular methods of destruction. But Fuller’s gift for visions of weird lyricism still emerge too, like Jones carrying Denise with tender care bathed in red light. The film’s official spirit might be pulp adventure but its visuals and thematic stresses scan stark vistas and wastelands, foreboding Kubrick’s Cold War horizons in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and James B. Harris’ The Bedford Incident (1965; also featuring Widmark). Here the diverse crewmen battle anonymous soldiers and uncover a dastardly plot to drop an atomic weapon on Japan and blame it on the good old US of A, a prospect that finally jolts Jones’ dormant patriotism into gear. Fuller may not have loved it, and it’s surely not one of his densest or strangest works, but Hell and High Water rocks regardless.

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