Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Enemy Below

“The Enemy Below” (1957) is one of the best war movies ever made, a taut and exciting cat and mouse game between an American destroyer and a German U-boat in the South Atlantic. American captain Robert Mitchum and German U-boat commander Curt Jurgens eventually exhibit great admiration for each other as they hunt each other across the Atlantic.

If this were made 10 years previously the Germans would have been seen as the heartless Huns, but enough time had passed since the end of the war that filmmakers could show the enemy in a somewhat more positive light. Jurgens’ character is a loyal German but one who is sick of war and disdainful of the Nazi regime.

Mitchum’s character is a captain newly assigned to his ship and someone his crew has not yet been able to take measure of. It’s a beautifully written film with lots of tension (both ships patiently waiting each other out) and excitement (some terrific depth charge explosions here), all clocking in at a most reasonable 97 minutes long. All scenes lead directly and logically into the next, and there’s no padding or extraneous footage. It’s Hollywood professionalism at its best.

Of course I have to mention the score, and “The Enemy Below” boasts a terrific turn from Leigh Harline. Yes, the man who composed the score and songs for Disney’s “Pinocchio” (1940) could write a march and action cues with the best of them, and “The Enemy Below” offers plenty of opportunities for Harline to show his stuff. His climatic action cues are first rate and I believe were later used in the TV series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. And speaking of the Seaview, who turns up as Mitchum’s second-in-command but Al (later David) Hedison. Fox used Hedison’s footage from “The Enemy Below” in one of the Voyage episodes. Voyage producer Irwin Allen always knew where to stretch a buck where he could.

Mitchum and Jurgens are excellent as the captains of their ships. I’d watch Mitchum read the phone book, and this is one of his most appealing performances.

The director of “The Enemy Below” is Dick Powell, and he enjoyed one of the most unique careers of anyone in Hollywood. He started out as a boyish tenor in a very popular series of Warner Bros. musicals usually teamed with Ruby Keller in gargantuan production numbers courtesy of Busby Berkeley, well-known titles like “42nd Street” (1932), “Footlight Parade” (1933), “Dames” (1934) and “Gold Diggers of 1933…1935 and 1937” among many others.

Tiring of his roles in musicals and wanting to show he was capable of more than crooning, he did a complete 180 and eventually starred in a series of film noirs and crime dramas throughout the 1940s, beginning with his turn as Philip Marlowe in “Murder My Sweet” (1944). Personally I never cared for him as Marlowe but a lot of buffs think he was the best Marlowe of all, even surpassing Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946). Powell starred in many really first-rate crime dramas such as “Cornered” (1945), “Pitfall” (1948), a terrific noir if you ever get the chance to see it, and “Johnny O’Clock” (1947). The former boy tenor is also more than convincing as a cowboy in “Station West” (1948). That’s a good film too.

In the 1950s he again re-invented himself by becoming a director and early television producer (Aaron Spelling was one of his protégés). Sure he directed “The Conqueror” (1956), the infamous film where John Wayne plays Genghis Khan (I like it), but his directorial debut “Split Second” (1953) is a good thriller, and “The Enemy Below” and “The Hunters” (1958) are first-rate war films. Powell died much too young of lung cancer but he had a remarkable career that was unique in Hollywood.

“The Enemy Below” is a crackling good film, and one I look forward to re-visiting.

Rating for “The Enemy Below”: Three stars.

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