In A Third Face, his magnificently pulpy memoirs, Samuel Fuller called Hell and High Water his least favorite film. The film may not smash through the Cold War thriller format as ferociously as Forty Guns smashes through the western format, but it’s enough of a distinctive and personal work to put its creator’s dismissal in perspective as another entry in that notoriously untrustworthy biography, or possibly an instance of a great filmmaker throwing his fans a curveball, like Luis Buñuel dubbing A Woman Without Love his worst picture. In any case, the film kicks off like gangbusters, with a flurry of international intrigue surrounding the disappearance of noted French scientist Prof. Montel (Victor Francen). The professor turns up as the leader of a cabal of “private individuals” who have taken upon themselves to fight the atomic threat hanging over the Free World; their instrument is ex-Navy officer Jones (Richard Widmark), who’s hired to pilot a re-tooled Japanese submarine through neutral waters and uncover some dastardly Commie scheme. As a men-on-a-mission adventure film, Hell and High Water more than holds its own with such other all-business ’50s naval flicks as The Enemy Below and Run Silent Run Deep. But then again, Fuller’s greatness resides less in constructing genre pieces than in bursting their seams, and the film’s tight action sequences don’t linger in the mind nearly as much as its oddities, like crew member Cameron Mitchell trying to woo scientist babe Bella Darvi by displaying his tattooed torso, or a Chinese sailor strumming a slangy version of “Don’t Fence Me In.” Often seen as typical ’50s Red-baiting propaganda, the film is actually a companion piece to Fuller’s great Pickup on South Street, with a less savage Widmark playing another mercenary (he even reuses the “flag-waver” remark) with a hidden, intuitive moral code that ultimately transcends knee-jerk patriotism. It’s a code acknowledged by Francen’s repeated axiom (“Each man has his own reason for living, and his own price for dying”), a concept which, much like Fuller’s brand of cinema, achieves true force only once it ventures past abstract homily and into visceral concreteness.
A nice job. Fuller’s CinemaScope rectangular compositions retain their vitality, and, though some scratches occasionally appear, the sub seems to sport a crisp new coat of paint. The stereo sound is firm down to the sonar pings.
The main course is a slim A&E Biography episode on star Richard Widmark. His collaborations with Fuller are barely touched on, but it’s a pleasure to hear Widmark survey his career in a 1999 interview. Besides that, only stills and a trailer.
Up periscope for Fuller’s solid Cold War yarn.