Film reviews

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

Eureka Entertainment’s long-running mission to showcase the very best of classic cinema, with their Masters of Cinema line, continues with the 1954 Samuel Fuller film Hell and High Water, starring Richard Widmark as submarine commander Adam Jones.

Jones is approached by a collection of scientists and businessmen who suspect China are building an atomic base near Japan.  Seeking proof, the consortium offers Adam generous remuneration to take a submarine to follow a Chinese freighter that has been making suspicious deliveries in the area. Setting off in pursuit of the Chinese freighter, before Jones considers his submarine ready for service, he is accompanied by Professor Montel (Victor Francen) and Montel’s assistant, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi).

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What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse with the Chinese, as the crew seek the evidence of nuclear subterfuge.  It should be noted, that the film begins and ends with the same explosion – there is never any doubt as to where this film will end, but the focus is on inter-personal relationships – with an almost pirate-film quality to some of the crew interactions – and action, as well as can be dramatised in an era dominated by miniatures.

Hell and High Water is terrific at establishing stakes.  With the opening section of the film containing establishing shots from around the world, this film immediately looks large-scale.  Its $2.7 million budget is reflected in every well-realised shot, showcasing action and photography that appears to be somewhat ahead of its time.

With an emphasis on tension, punctuated by occasional action, this is analogous to some of the mega-budget B-Movies of the 80s and 90s; films like Commando, where A-list actors, and huge budget were afforded to what are, essentially, films that would have appeared as the undercard, with less well-known actors and smaller budgets in the era of the double-feature.  This is surprisingly lavish and high-budget for a fairly straightforward actioner (by the standards and definitions of the time).  It is enjoyable enough, but a film that – beyond an appreciation of the technical – will likely fade from memory soon after viewing.

The bonus features reflect this being somewhat at the budget end of the Masters of Cinema range, as they are sparse and inexpensive, but there are still pleasures to be had with them.  An audio commentary comes from author Scott Harrison.  As usual with these releases from Eureka Entertainment, we are left to ask “Who is that?” as no introduction to the man or his work is provided.

Scott turns out to be a 47-year old British playwright and author, also noted for written essay contributions to works such as these.  His commentary is a fairly typical mix of appreciation, historical context, and academic inquiry.  He provides decent context on the history of the CinemaScope format, as well as good background information on Widmark and Fuller.  He discusses the film’s budget, and its model effects, while perhaps letting his own thoughts and preferences dominate the latter too much.  It is accessible track, particularly poignant in its discussion of Darvi’s 1971 suicide.  Otherwise, it is pretty standard issue for this type of release.

”Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters’ is a 45-minute documentary on our leading man.  Shot in standard definition, it is repurposed from the A&E Biography series, and first aired in 2001.  On the one hand, we could critique this not being a new feature; on the other hand, the virtue of it being 19-years old is that we hear from long dead contributors – with Widmark himself complemented by the likes of Karl Malden.  This is a nice tribute to an actor who, although well-known, has fallen through the cracks a little when consideration is given to the great performers of this era.  Rounding off the on-screen features is a trailer for the original theatrical release of the film.

Complementing the reasonably attractive artwork is a 25-page booklet kicking-off with an essay by the film critic Philip Kemp (again, “Who is that?”).  Kemp has appeared on screen on other releases for Eureka, though a bit more context on his background would be useful.  The essay, ‘Three for Slam-Bam Sam’ takes up half of the booklet, and is a detailed history of the director’s career.  The second half of this booklet comprises words from Fuller himself, and are probably the best we could now get from the filmmaker, given he passed away in the 1990s.

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Hell and High Water is not the marquee release that was represented by something like The African Queen, for example.  Widmark doesn’t carry the fame of Bogart, and the film is not celebrated to the same degree.  With this in mind, the most reasonable request a viewer can make of Eureka in releasing this is that the film itself is treated with reverence and the product ships with something extra to sweeten the purchase.

Here we have one of the finest restorations of a 1950s film in memory, along with a thoughtful essay and a decent enough commentary.  It is far from the criticism that this release feels a little basic; as without Eureka taking the time and interest on these less commercial propositions, films such as these would die with the passage of time.

Hell and High Water is out on Blu-ray on 7th December from Eureka Entertainment.

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