Enemy Below, The (Blu-ray Review)19 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Robert Mitchum, Curt Jurgens, Theodore Bikel.
20th Century-Fox gave The Enemy Below a limited year-end release (including a Christmas Day launch in New York City), which is the kind of thing studios did and still do when they have a sleeper on their hands that’s also something less than a mass-audience item. The CinemaScope submarine drama ended up winning the year’s Oscar for special effects, and the National Board of Review found a place for it on its annual 10-best list (while ignoring Paths of Glory, A Face in the Crowd, Witness for the Prosecution and, well … don’t get me going). But possibly in part because Das Boot permanently rewrote the book on submarine movies a quarter-century later, Enemy isn’t mentioned all that much today despite having been kind of a ’50s groundbreaker — as well as an intelligent, if not all-out stirring study in logistical one-upmanship.
The groundbreaking aspect has to do with Curt Jurgens’ characterization of the German counterpart to Robert Mitchum’s U.S. Navy captain amid their 97 screen minutes of cat-and-mouse between an American destroyer escort and a German U-boat that the former has the misfortune to encounter in the South Atlantic. This was the first or one of the first Hollywood combat movies to treat a German officer as a well-rounded human being, and Jurgens (in his first American film) is such a commanding and even appealing presence that his blue eyes still manage to penetrate the somewhat faded DeLuxe Color on this Blu-ray’s print. And it isn’t all physical cosmetics when it comes to the attractiveness of his character: In one scene, Jurgens and a colleague all but struggle to keep their rolling eyes in their sockets when they spot an enlistee reading a copy of Mein Kampf at a time I take to be fairly late in the war. Jurgens became so proficient at playing the “good German” that a college history professor of mine used him as the prime human-symbol example of how Hollywood softened its German tone in the postwar era after West Germany became our ally. Of course, to diversify his portfolio, Jurgens later became a James Bond villain in The Spy Who Loved Me, which itself was no stranger to the underwater milieu.
Enemy also has one of the better Mitchum performances where the actor is playing it straight, though his stocks-in-trade were playing psychopaths (The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear) and those many movies where he sleepily winked at us (as when we see him at, of all things, an ironing board early in His Kind of Woman). Bob must have been filming Enemy not too long after he cut his essential Calypso LP for Capitol, so you have to admire the ability he had to switch gears; he easily finesses the quiet-valor stuff here. Within its narrative limitations, the movie is reasonably accomplished, and in ’50s technological terms, it’s passable enough in terms of miniature work and ability to enable technicians’ soundstage efforts to carry the day. But there’s a ceiling on one’s tolerance, or at least enthusiasm, for the boilerplate comedy relief you see in these kinds of movies — and though it’s more minimal here than in other sub dramas, let’s just say that Doug McClure playing a lousy game of cards doesn’t get the picture off to the most robust start. When I was a kid, I preferred Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep (which I was lucky enough to see in a crafty neighborhood-theater double bill with a re-issue of the original Mutiny on the Bounty) because it had as much suspense plus the star-power dynamics between Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in somewhat adversarial roles.
Enemy is one of six features that Dick Powell directed, and you have to give him credit for coming back from John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror from ’56, which was followed later that year by another non-starter: You Can’t Run Away From It, an ill-advised remake with songs of It Happened One Night starring Powell’s real-life wife June Allyson (a movie I saw as a kid in a very strange double bill with The Bridge on the River Kwai). Powell, one of my favorite actors ever after he made the transition from tenor to toughie, got off to a good directorial start with the glorified “B” Split Second in 1953, but then it was downhill with this one Mitchum-Jurgens exception. As with other color Fox releases from Kino Classics, no one seems to have done any refurbishing of Enemy’s print quality (in contrast to the Fox Twilight Time renderings, which always seem to look as good as one would hope). The movie has a following, so this is a welcome Blu-ray release — though I’m guessing the picture caught on more as time went on, thanks to (unletterboxed) TV showings — up the point in 1981-82 when Das Boot broke the mold. At the time, the designated downtown movie palace in my hometown could only sustain Enemy a week, even with a return engagement toss-in of 12 Angry Men (a monster commercial flop in its day, though name someone who doesn’t love it) at the bottom of the bill.