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Hell and High Water (1954)

Disc Reviews

Hell and High Water (1954) | Blu-ray Review

Hell and High Water (1954) | Blu-ray Review

Hell and High Water (1954)Although revered as an independent maverick and celebrated for the pronounced strangeness of his 60s classics like Shock Corridor (1963) and the delightfully perverse The Naked Kiss (1964), Samuel Fuller’s most lauded film is his classic noir Pickup on South Street (1953). Widely regarded as his masterpiece, this dirty little 20th Century Fox property landed him in the hot seat with the House of Un-American Activities.

Defended by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, Fuller found himself in no place to object when he was approached to direct Hell and High Water, a Cold War thriller perhaps meant as an opportunity to redeem the then fledgling auteur. Starring Richard Widmark opposite Cinderella story debutant Bella Darvi, who would later infamously be revealed as Zanuck’s mistress, Fuller does his best to subvert expectations by obfuscating the heroism of his leading man as less an All-American stalwart of integrity and more a greedy, horny, opportunistic capitalist. Bleak and anticlimactic, despite its carefully paced cat and mouse sequences, the film manages to be a sterling Fuller achievement as he was allowed to re-write the original screenplay by Beirne Lay and Jessie L. Lasky, Jr.

In the summer of 1953, an atomic bomb was detonated in the Pacific, somewhere outside of the United States. Tracked to an area between the northern tip of the Japanese islands and the Arctic Circle, the U.S. government hires retired submarine commander Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) to command a WWII era Japanese submarine and secretly follow the Chinese freighter Kiang Ching, which has been spotted in the area and engaging in suspicious activity. Agreeing to the mission only if the sub is weaponized, Jones is joined by famed French scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) and his daughter, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), both who had recently gone missing, and thought to have defected behind the Iron Curtain, along to investigate possible nuclear activity on the islands.

While most of Fuller’s later period titles received more praise and attention despite this title’s box office success, the 1950s was his most prolific decade, churning out twelve titles between 1950 and 1959. Cited as a favorite title of Spielberg’s, Hell and High Water tends to get less mention these days than House of Bamboo (1955) or the Barbara Stanwyck western Forty Guns (1957), a shame considering its technical achievements (including an Oscar nod for Best Visual Effects) and controlled tone. Furthermore, it comes replete with its own private behind-the-scenes baggage.

Despite being championed as a wrongly demeaned cinematic figure by Camille Paglia in the 1990s, the name Bella Darvi has fallen into obscurity, despite having such a tragic, tantalizing backstory. A Polish beauty who survived the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, she was discovered by Zanuck and his wife Virginia in a Moroccan casino. Believing she could be groomed as an exotic foreign star in the studio system (think Garbo, Dietrich, Bergman), they paid off her considerable gambling debt, ignored her addiction issues, and moved her into their Santa Monica beach house, inventing the surname Darvi from their own first names (a once popular tradition of elitist Hollywood types when naming their property). Darvi gets second billing only to Widmark, and she has a certain allure which doesn’t seem to be teased as properly as it could have been. Fuller doesn’t shy from the script’s misogynistic tendencies, such as a pointed sequence where the men threaten mutiny at the presence of a female, scientist or not. Widmark smarmily approaches her father, played by a gone-to-seed Victor Francen, asking “What makes a girl like that get mixed up in science?”

Darvi was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, a fact obscured by the terrible reviews she received the same year in Michael Curtiz’s failed The Egyptian, a production compromised by Marlon Brando’s abandonment before shooting and considerable heckling of Darvi on set, particularly by co-star Jean Simmons. Although Darvi’s illicit relationship with Zanuck would eventually implode her troubled Hollywood career, she’s quite arresting in Fuller’s film, strong accent or not. Although her characterization is another problematic representation of women in science, she’s still a lot more progressive than something like Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough (1999). Resembling a Euro Karen Black (who would have been excellent casting if someone had bothered to make a biopic on Darvi in the late 70s or early 80s), her lack of chemistry with Widmark (who also wasn’t a fan) hardly matters—Fuller extravagantly bathes them in iridescent red light during their lovemaking sequence, a color-coded hue which simultaneously paints their sentiments in the same color as the Communist party.

Widmark, with his usual pronounced swagger, tends to dominate the proceedings. Curiously, his character’s position as a former submarine commander automatically marks his motivations for this assignment as suspicious as he’s motivated solely by monetary gain. Fuller gleefully avoids any iota of patriotism on his part. Although a far less superior film, Jordan Vogt-Roberts conjures some of this dynamic with his Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson characters (the token woman scientist, whose gender is a point of contention) in this year’s Kong: Skull Island.

Disc Review:

Twilight Time releases Hell and High Water in its usual tradition of limited edition (3,000 units), with 5.1 DTS-HD audio and 2.55:1. DP Joe MacDonald’s expert cinematography is impressive, commanding the colorful CinemaScope (outfitted here for the confined submarine spaces), particularly in the underwater sequences, utilizing available special effects (not to mention footage cannibalized from other films, including the explosive opening). Alfred Newman’s score (which was previously used in 1944’s The Fighting Lady) is available as an isolated track.

Richard Widmark – Strength of Characters:
Twilight Time includes a forty-four minute program on Widmark from A&E, which details Widmark’s beginnings as well as a showcase for his wide ranging memorable performances (beginning with his break out hit in 1947’s Kiss of Death).

Final Thoughts:

A definite find for Fuller fans, Hell and High Water is the antithesis of 1950s studio era action cinema, outfitted with the director’s usual grim demeanor and pronounced pessimism.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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