Rock Hudson spends much of Sea Devils bare-chested. It’s tempting to think that this is significant. The high-or-lowlight of Raoul Walsh’s 1952 pirate film comes with Hudson bound, nipples accentuated between two ropes, a bright red scarf dangling in between. The chemistry between Hudson’s chest and the audience is much, much greater than that between him and his female co-star, Yvonne De Carlo: He leans in, reaching for her hand, and she pulls it away and strokes her own cheek. Knowing what we know about Hudson’s real-life sexuality, it’s impossible not to watch moments like these and snigger.
But the off-screen subtext isn’t what makes Sea Devils such a curious camp item. Borden Chase’s screenplay does. De Carlo’s Droucette, a two-timing spy in the Napoleonic era, “was born into a time of trouble, and it’s never left me”; Hudson’s Gilliatt is embittered that “we’re always saying goodbye.” At one point, the jealous smuggler (“Smugglers never sleep! They only fight, get drunk, and have a good time!”) ties her up and stuffs a cloth in her mouth, crying, “That’s how you should always be—gagged! Then you can’t play on a man’s feelings!”; dropping her into a chair, he snarls, “You’d better take a good look around, because where you’re going there won’t be any furniture.”
Hudson delivers many of his lines with clenched teeth and a tight face, De Carlo many of hers with a stiff back, wringing hands, and wide, worried eyes. Their styles ill-fit Walsh’s, one of the best action directors, a filmmaker that Manny Farber once claimed directed like a traffic cop. Walsh had directed films for nearly 40 years by this time, and showed no signs of slowing. He specialized at simply showing people doing things, whether driving trucks late at night or holding up banks in the afternoon. Perhaps as a consequence, his performers dictated the frame, and the images registered more than the dialogue in earlier Walsh films like High Sierra and White Heat because, good as the words were, the stop-and-start jumping dynamism of Bogart and Cagney kept propelling the camera. His movies are most exciting when they’ve accelerated motion, but with a film starring stiff, sluggish actors, both camera and scissors slow down to accommodate them. When the pacing is more relaxed (the chief camera trick is a steady pan), you’ve more time than ever to focus on all the silly stuff.
It would be unfair, though, to blame only Hudson and De Carlo. The choppiness of the thing, the cutting back and forth between still images with a little camera shake to suggest boats rocking rather than cutting on movement, emblemizes its Hollywood era. Many 1930s and 1940s Bogart and Cagney action movies, as well as others—like the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn pirate films (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk)—practically bounded, but by the 1950s the speed at which movies moved had essentially changed. Influenced by TV, Hollywood had grown interior-bound and talkier, and the quick, clean cuts of early studio filmmaking napped so that audiences could take in Technicolor surroundings. A less mobile, more declarative performer arose partly as a result of this. True, this was the Method moment, with Clift and Brando, but it was also a time for William Holden, Gregory Peck, and Rock Hudson. In lieu of Flynn and Cary Grant’s limber, all-encompassing motions, Hudson rarely moved more than a few parts of his body at a time.
A director like Douglas Sirk, Hudson’s most frequent collaborator, could exploit the actor’s immobility by placing his calm amid maniacs and freaks; by contrast, you feel Walsh urging him to hurry up, well into a rushed ending, with he and De Carlo roaming out to brave all seven seas. Meanwhile there’s been court intrigue, talk of lobsters, and Napoleon glimpsed in longshot. “It’s unorthodox, of course,” one character says of a mission, to which another responds, “Surprise always is.” Unorthodox as much of this movie is (Hudson buttering hunks of bread in a sharply angled Caligari bar, seeing a rival, and stating, “Put a piece of cheese under that rat’s nose!”), a flat, bland visual style keeps me from often feeling surprised.
The Technicolor Sea Devils was shot in hasn’t aged well. The film’s characters tend to dress in strong single colors, but in contrast to the gleams and pops of some of Criterion’s Powell and Pressburger restorations, where the red shoes practically leap off the screen, here the red scarves fade into the background. The colors are never unappealing, though, just unremarkable (save for the opening shot, where the water’s wonderfully blue). The sound is loud and flat. The film’s score registers effectively, but strong differences between voice tones and pitches, as well as the different levels people speak at, don’t come across as well as they could. Whether this is the restoration’s problem or the original material’s I can’t say.
Trailers for two other VCI Entertainment releases, both with Linda Darnell (go figure). The Island of Desire trailer, promising "a broad-shouldered young giant" and "six feet of rugged manhood"—two different dudes—makes the film seem an abominable hoot. The Summer Storm trailer proves much more effective, a convoluted plot explication notwithstanding, still giving us a taste of good black-and-white photography and a strong George Sanders role.
Rock Hudson, pirates, Raoul Walsh standing by.