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Hell and High Water (Blu-ray Review)

10 Jul, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans.

Movie fans who grew up in the ’50s learned almost at once that it was impossible to mount any kind of scientific expedition without the participation of one woman scientist, assuming that she sported a requisite look and cool-ish manner closer to the pages of Vogue than say, Nancy Kulp or a cheesecake calendar from the walls of a Texaco station. Usually, the big-screen trek involved the pursuit of a T-Rex or maybe a carnivorous giant parsnip who emerged from some oceanic or desert slumber hole to plunder the entrails of the minimum-wage villagers in its immediate path. Director Samuel Fuller, however, was far more of a Cold War than parsnip kind of guy, which pretty much mandates that his early CinemaScope political potboiler Hell and High Water would involve Commies, submarines, The Bomb and, yes, a femme scientist from the Vogue blueprint brought along to assist an elderly mentor with his professorial calculations.

In any event, Water co-lead Bella Darvi gets the crew so in the mood that sweaty sub crewmember Cameron Mitchell (now there’s casting inevitability for you) is moved to give her a look at what turns out to be his fake tattoo. An actress almost as obscure then as now, Darvi and her brief history are the movie’s two major points of historical interest — the other being its status as one of the first CinemaScope releases. Certainly, these backstories are more interesting than skipper Richard Widmark barking commands to subordinates who include Mitchell, Fuller regular Gene Evans and occasional 20th Century-Fox lead David Wayne in a role so small that it must have been a case of his studio contract ending. According to Julie Kirgo’s Twilight Time essay here, Fuller felt indebted to Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, which may have influenced him to take on the project despite a script that remains both boilerplate and clunky. On Blu-ray, Fuller’s early widescreen compositions and blocking of actors still impresses (this was his first color film), but it should be noted that this admittedly handsome time-killer is mighty middling compared to the Fuller films that bookended it: Pickup on South Street (available on Blu-ray from Criterion) and House of Bamboo (another Twilight Time release). Both are among the best movies he ever made.

The deal here: A secluded consortium of slide-rule types and entrepreneurs have detected the possible construction of an atomic base being built on some as yet undetermined Pacific or Arctic island — leading to the hiring of mercenary Widmark and scientific specialists to man an old Japanese sub in pursuit of a Chinese freighter making deliveries to the target spot, wherever it is. This leads to a serious skirmish with a Chinese sub and other moments probably less tense than the filmmakers intended until the crew discovers that country A is planning something insidious on country B that will then be blamed on country C (no precise spoilers here because I don’t want anyone barking at me like Widmark).

Back to Darvi, whose invented last name was a first-name smooshing of “Dar” (for Darryl) and “Vi” (for wife Virginia Zanuck, who must have advocated a live-and-let-live policy). When programming the AFI Theater in Washington D.C. for roughly take nine years, I always had a loopy fantasy about doing a series devoted to movies starring Zanuck’s mistresses (which might have made for a long calendar). These always lasted 15 seconds at most because even beyond the aesthetic worthlessness of the concept, Fox probably wouldn’t have been too forthcoming with studio prints and the Kennedy Center would have nixed my putting a casting couch in the lobby as a promotional device. But if I had, Darvi’s career would have been possibly the concept’s most emblematic example. The Zanucks spotted her while travelling abroad, somehow thought this non-actress had possibilities, moved her into the family estate back in Hollywood (not the Mayberry way of doing things) and signed her to a deal. Water was the initial result, followed by Darvi’s courtesan role as part of the ensemble in Fox’s pricey The Egyptian; her final Hollywood role came just a year later opposite Kirk Douglas in money-losing The Racers. One hesitates to make fun of her beyond acceptable norms because hers was a sad life that culminated in suicide. But you do have to wonder how anyone as savvy as the Zanuck’s thought her Polish accent was ever going to play on American screens when technology hadn’t yet come up with remotes and replay buttons. It is still so thick that it would take that Walter Pidgeon “Id monster” from Forbidden Planet to even dent it. One can imagine Widmark and Douglas sitting around between takes on The Way West a dozen years later and going, “Bella Darvi — whoa!

And yet if you’re a certain age, Water does bring back the popcorn matinee days of Scope when even a lot of small-town theaters had recently closed down and reopened after installing industry-altering anamorphic equipment, bigger screens and stereo speakers to facilitate a novelty that proved sustainable. By the time this shaky but profitable 100-minute release got to my city in late March 1954 about seven weeks after its New York opening, it was capable of filling one of the downtown movie places without benefit of a second feature — though it’s never been clear to me how much added revenue a, say, George Montgomery Western would have brought to the party.

I’m not the ultimate expert on this (calling Bob Furmanek, calling Bob Furmanek), but by my count, Water must have been about the sixth of ’50s Scope movies to come out, all but one of which were from Fox. They would be The Robe (filmed second but released first); How To Marry a Millionaire (filmed first); Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (coming soon from Twilight Time and one I saw at age 6 at the time); King of the Khyber Rifles; MGM’s Knights of the Round Table (which I also saw at the time); and then Water, a couple weeks before Guy Madison’s The Command, a Warner Bros. cavalry Western. (Any omissions or corrections on the chronology here are welcome.) Even The Command — or, if you prefer, “Harvey Lembeck as ‘Private Gottschalk’ in 2.55:1” — managed a solo booking in an era of good tidings that inevitably reached parity after the novelty diminished for Hollywood’s more marginal titles. In terms of art, Water’s definitely on the marginal side itself — and yet the Blu-ray’s early stereo is typically robust for its day in Fox fashion, so this plus good looks (the studio still had about a six-month roster to go before the unfortunate abandonment of Technicolor) does bring back an era when it was all new and wonderful for me — though, yes, you probably had to be there.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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