Modern Problems in HELL AND HIGH WATER

Hell and High Water is an engaging entry into the Samuel Fuller canon

In the early 1950s, Hollywood went into a “television panic.” Scared to death that their audiences were being eaten up by “that box,” the major studios were desperate to get their audiences back into the theaters, and their money back into their bank accounts. Almost every studio tried various gimmicks, including creating their own widescreen formats. 20th Century Fox’s was CinemaScope, which debuted in 1953, with five features in their patented widescreen format. That number exploded by 1954 with no less than 37 films, one of which was the cold war actioner Hell and High Water—starring Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, Victor Francen, and Cameron Mitchell.

Directed by Samuel Fuller and unrelated to the 1933 film of the same name, Hell and High Water is the story of a secret mission put together by a group of scientists to stop a plot by a foreign power to trigger nuclear war, with the adversary’s goal to place the war’s blame on the United States.

Widmark is a former Navy submarine captain who arrives in Tokyo after getting a package with $5,000 and mysterious instructions. Jones meets noted French scientist Montel (Francen) and learns that he and a group of international scientists are the ones who contacted him. The scientists offer Jones a total of $50,000 to lead a mission to thwart the potential start of World War III, using a decommissioned and re-furbished Japanese submarine.

Jones, after being told he will be in full command at sea, agrees with some concessions. Jones wants to pick his own crew, using largely men he served with during the War, and he wants the submarine armed. Montel, along with his assistant, Professor Gerard (Darvi) board the submarine and the mission takes off.

20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck personally wanted the submarine adventure film to be shot in CinemaScope to show to other studios and filmmakers that the wide format would work on confined sets and its use could not, and should not, be limited to just large-scale epics like The Robe.

Zanuck also tapped Fuller to direct, who wasn’t the most thrilled with the script, but was fond of Zanuck, especially after the mogul stood up to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover over Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. (Although it was considered anticommunist propaganda, the Fascist America that Fuller illustrates in that classic is almost as dystopian as the alternative).

Fuller wanted to rewrite Hell and High Water. Zanuck gave his blessing, as long as the original screenwriters signed off on a re-write before production began, which they did.

Hell and High Water is very entertaining. There are one or two plot points that I found a bit much—it seems rather strange that a group of scientists would go rogue on their own and not get some kind of government backing for a such project. Also, the romance subplot feels shoe-horned in.

Still and all, Widmark is great, the story is engaging and Fuller’s direction keeps a fine pace.

Hell and High Water makes its blu-ray debut thanks to Twilight Time—who make it part of their reliable limited edition series of just 3,000 copies per title. The 1080p image is most impressive and one of the better looking early CinemaScope films on blu-ray. Colors are solid throughout, there’s a little haze in some dark scenes and those ever so lovely CinemaScope “mumps,” but overall this is a great looking presentation.

The sound presentation is just as good as the visual one. Both a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mix is included. I assume both from original source materials considering many CinemaScope films featured three track Stereophonic sound with a 4th track for an “effects channel.” I watched the film with the 5.1 track and it’s really great. Clear, sharp, and the “effects channel” now funneled into the back two speakers of my surround set up works wonderfully. To give an example, my cat wandered into the room and laid down on the couch while I was watching the movie. She never reacts to things playing in surround sound, or usually doesn’t. However, an explosion in this movie caused her to perk up and take notice.

Special Features include an isolated track of the music score by the great Alfred Newman, an A&E biography feature on Richard Widmark (God, do I ever miss the old A&E), an essay by Julie Kirgo, and two wonderfully bombastic original trailers for the film. The delightful kind that reminds you with great hyperbole that “ONLY CINEMASCOPE COULD DARE BRING YOU A PRODUCTION OF THIS SCALE!” How I do love 1950s film trailer bolstering.

About Andy Ross 21 Articles
Andy Ross is a writer, humorist, and improv performer from Northeast Tennessee. Mr. Ross is a columnist with The Loafer, a long running entertainment weekly based out of Johnson City, TN. Mr. Ross also is a member of improv group Blue Plate Special, and can be seen introducing classic movies regularly at this historic Capitol Theater in Greeneville, TN. HIs hobbies outside of the cinema include records and vintage board games.

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