The summer of 1953, and the detonation of an atomic device “of foreign origin” detected in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between the northern tip of Japan and the Arctic Circle is the spectacle which opens Samuel Fuller’s cold war submarine drama Hell and High Water before rolling back to some weeks before the blast to recount the events which led up to that incident.
First is the disappearance of former Nobel prize winning physicist Professor Montel, en route to Vienna and presumed to have either been abducted or to have defected behind the Iron Curtain; the fifth high profile to have gone missing, the news story is of little more than passing interest to former US navy commander Adam Jones, travelling incognito to Tokyo at the behest of a former colleague.
Conducted to his destination, Jones is surprised to be greeted by the missing scientists who are undertaking an investigation into a group of islands where it is believed an unknown agency is stockpiling nuclear weapons; with a refitted and largely untested I-203 submarine under his command, Jones and his crew will conduct Professor Montal and his assistant, Professor Denise Gerard, beneath the waves to perform close reconnaissance.
With a screenplay written by Jesse L Lasky, Jr, then revised by Fuller, Hell and High Water was released in early 1954, a showcase for the CinemaScope process which had been launched the year before, and it is now restored in 4K for Blu-ray release as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series in its full 2.55 : 1 ultra-widescreen glory.
The focus on the technical aspects, the performances are stilted and the characters stock, Twilight’s Last Gleaming’s Richard Widmark out of his depth as the stoic Jones and debutante starlet Bella Darvi given more attention for her gender than her stated ability as a scientist and linguist, the lecherous thrown-together multinational crew more suited to a comedy vehicle than a top-secret mission to safeguard world peace.
Neither as beautiful or dynamic as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, released later the same year though produced at over twice the budget of Fuller’s film, the new edition of Hell and High Water also features an archive documentary on the career of Widmark and a commentary from film critic Scott Harrison which provides context on the Cold War, submarine films and the different approaches to nuclear cinema, 20th Century Fox having released this buoyant thriller kept afloat by Alfred Newman’s overly jaunty score the same year as Toho Studios unleashed the destructive horror of Godzilla.