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Hell and High Water

by Glenn Erickson Jun 27, 2017

Samuel Fuller sure knows how to wind up the geopolitical tension, especially in a rip-roaring provocative atom threat adventure. This show might have caused problems if anybody cared what movies said back when the Cold War was hot. Richard Widmark skippers a leaky sub to the arctic and discovers that the Chinese communists are going to start WW3 — and blame it on Uncle Sam. It’s an insane, irresponsible comic-book adventure about very serious issues — and we love it.

Hell and High Water
Twilight Time
1954 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date June 13, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, Victor Francen, Richard Loo, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne.
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor: James B. Clark
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Written by Samuel Fuller, Jesse L. Lasky Jr. story by David Hempstead
Produced by Raymond A. Klune
Directed by
Samuel Fuller


For its first full season of CinemaScope movies, Darryl Zanuck found a likely property for Samuel Fuller in Hell and High Water, an absolutely insane amalgam of hot-button political notions, avant la lettre paranoid conspiracy fiction, and infantile Terry and the Pirates comic book action. How does one react to the problem of nuclear proliferation among hostile nations?  Sam enlists WW2 veterans to transform the Cold War into a shootin’ war.  Some in the army had expressed unhappiness with Fuller’s pragmatic, brutal, and realistic vision of combat in his The Steel Helmet.  The F.B.I. was none too pleased with Pickup on South Street, where Sam portrayed America’s main defender as a selfish thief, who sneers at Government agents asking him to be a patriot and risk his neck.

Sam Fuller was on a roll at 20th Fox, and his boss Darryl Zanuck picked him to move up to CinemaScope and color with this ocean-going epic. Sam was never vague about where he stood on the issues of the day. Pickup on South Street’s Thelma Ritter tells a cop, “I just don’t like commies.”  That sentiment is amplified by Fuller’s wild Vietnam movie China Gate, where black mercenary soldier Nat King Cole has traveled halfway around the world just to get the chance to kill Reds. Going far beyond either of those films in its geopolitical insanity, Hell and High Water is pure pulp, a loopy Atomic commando saga. Richard Widmark returns for his second Sam Fuller potboiler joined by the ill-fated Bella Darvi, who made her debut in The Egyptian under the promise that she was going to co-star with Marlon Brando. Darvi made only one more American picture before heading back to France.


In science fiction movies 1954 was the year in which movie soldiers and scientists formed a truce to fight technological monsters, with politicians taking a back seat. Newspapers were questioning the loyalty of atom scientists reluctant to help Uncle Sam build bigger and better bombs. The fictional confederation of atom scientists in Hell and High Water hates commies so much that they do an end-run around international politics, funding a secret pro-active mission to find out what the Chinese are doing on a tiny island in the North Pacific. Frenchman Professor Montel (Victor Francen) must go into hiding to lead the expedition; the world press assumes that he has defected behind the Iron Curtain. Ex- Navy sub commander Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) is hired as a mercenary, to outfit and sail a war-surplus Japanese submarine (?) provided by scientist-activist Hakada Fujimori (Richard Loo). The rowdy handpicked crew (Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne) at first objects to having a woman on board, but sexy Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) is an atomic energy expert in her own right and has helpful multilingual skills. The refitted ship defeats a Chinese submarine and searches one Chinese-held neutral island, finding nothing. At a second island Adam and Denise narrowly escape capture but get a glimpse at an American B-29 outfitted with a nuclear bomb. A captured Red Major reveals an inscrutably fiendish plot:  the commies plan to nuke Manchuria or North Korea, blame it on America and ignite World War Three!

In his autobiography Sam Fuller described Hell and High Water as “a sea picture where we never went to sea.” Studio executives looking for budget pix to keep sound stages busy could always fall back on a submarine movie. The basic requirements are one fancy sub interior set for the actors, and a lot of toy boat noodling by the prop wranglers in the miniature tank. Hell uses a standard sub mock-up set probably welded together in WW2, backed with a lot of special effects.


The tone of the show is Captain Blood crossed with Robert Oppenheimer versus the Commies, on a budget. A CinemaScope orgy of world capitals establishes worldwide concern about nuclear scientists and the nuclear peril. Fuller’s invents a cabal of nuclear egghead peaceniks, and refreshingly enough doesn’t label them as Soviet dupes. No, this independent brain trust weirdly shares the same agenda as the F.B.I.. Montel tells reporters that America’s Atomic Energy Commission will have nothing to do with his outfit, but he’s also quick to blackball an ‘untrustworthy’ sailor from Adam Jones’ crew. Actor Victor Francen had a strong background in highly emotional political movies, having starred for French filmmaker Abel Gance in both La fin du monde (1931) and the anti-war J’accuse! (1938).

Richard Widmark’s tough guy Adam Jones takes the helm of the no-flag pirate ship out of professional need — he’s addicted to skippering subs and wants a second chance at a career. International cooperation is the order of the day as the diverse crew of former enemies bands together against the one “-ism” they all agree must be opposed at all costs. If there’s a character arc, it’s Jones’s: he has to see commie treachery for himself to fight for principle over profit.


The voyage is comprised of standard comic-book episodes (battling the Chinese sub, storms, a man losing his thumb in a hatch) and silly oo-la-la hi-jinks with the heavily accented Denise, the film’s love interest.  Contrary to general opinion, Ms. Darvi does just fine in the role. Denise proves her indispensability by translating Japanese ideograms on the sub’s interior plumbing. Captain Adam Jones vetoes Professor Montel’s mission-by-committee concept in favor of One-Dude Rule, and barks out a lot of tough-guy orders to remind us that he’s the Captain. Fuller isn’t afraid to run down the sub movie cliché checklist. There’s the expected silent running scene, and the gag where they have to hide on the bottom with red lights on and the oxygen running out. Widmark’s attentions to Denise would now be considered unforgivable sexual harassment. He romances her as both of them gasp for breath in the foul air. I’ve been on a studio submarine set, and even it smelled like a men’s locker room after a few minutes, so this scene is quite a stretch. Denise naturally falls for Adam, sweat and all.

The crew interaction is corny and broadly played. Swarthy swab Cameron Mitchell tries to get to cozy with the ‘ma’amselle scienteest,’ something Mitchell was doing a lot of at the time (see Garden of Evil). The dialogue for the crew is not the best but we do get to see Fuller’s favorite bunch of he-man actors. Fox contract player Mitchell receives most of the attention as a grinning idiot, but the fave Fuller faces on display include Richard Loo, Henry Kulky, Neyle Morrow and Sgt. Rock himself, the cigar-chomping Gene Evans. Perhaps actor David Wayne signed on to fulfill his Fox contract, for his ship’s doctor has very little to do.


The sub crew is international in flavor, with Asian sailors but no blacks. Unbilled Wong Artarne’s Chinese crewman Chin Lee sings a song but is sandwiched into a thankless Gunga Din plot complication. He sacrifices himself for the good of the voyage, which is all the proof Adam and Fuller need to conclude that commies are just not like you and me. Even Montel must remind himself that the Red enemies are human beings. As in Warners’ Them!  the scientists are in complete harmony with the military: the United States should have a monopoly on nuclear weapons and anybody else that wants them is an Enemy of Freedom.

After some fairly generic incidents the excitement picks up with the commando action on the two secret islands, where our peacenik mercenaries duke it out with the goonish Asians. The diabolical wild scheme of the Red Chinese is comparable to the outrageous super-crimes we would later associate with James Bond villains. The rotten Reds are willing to risk blowing up the whole world because their immense population will allow them to prevail after the bombs fall. Or perhaps they think that by faking a U.S. attack on China they can pull off a propaganda coup and convince the U.N. that America is indeed bent on world domination. And they’re willing to nuke their own citizens to do it: those crazy commies have no respect for human life.

This insane plot complication can only be called irresponsible and provocative. I can imagine Party insiders projecting a purloined copy of Hell and High Water in their secret Kremlin & Peiping screening rooms and shaking in their boots. If frivolous, decadent Hollywood can toy with life-and-death nuclear issues as blithely as this, what crazy extremes could be expected of the U.S. Government?


The Fox effects department provides all of the sea-going visuals for Hell and High Water. Shots on deck are accomplished in the studio tank, mixing rear projection with iffy traveling matte opticals. The secret Chinese islands are matte paintings combined with some well-sculpted fake rocks and caves for the live-action footage. A fire scene by the water cleverly re-purposes some stock shots from the ten year-old Crash Dive, optically repositioned. The miniatures are well crafted but not always well- filmed by modern standards, as the murky arctic waters are far too clear; it’s like we’re looking into an aquarium. Assuming Fox used ‘Scope lenses on the miniatures as well, the limited focus and warped optical field would certainly restrict the kinds of angles that could be used, even on a model eight feet long.

Several camera tricks are phenomenally successful, however. When Chinese machine guns rake our commandos on the beach, tracer bullets light up the scene, a very cool effect. They’re achieved through traditional cel animation, the same technique later used to create the laser blasts for Star Wars. The tracer flashes appear to be roto-scoped from the real thing, and are so fine that they didn’t show up well on the old DVD. Someone concocted a really good-looking studio pyrotechnic explosion for the Atom Bomb blasts that bookend the film. The billowing, fiery cloud is similar to the explosion at the end of Disney’s 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was made the same year on rented studio facilities. I’ll bet Disney hired the same effects men to do it.


Although it lasts only a few seconds a single graphic set piece in Hell and High Water ranks with the most dynamic images of the cinema of the Cold War. I have a feeling that the entire movie was concocted just to find an excuse to film it. (spoiler) The bomb-laden B-29 takes off and must fly right over our rogue sub which has been waiting in ambush. Adam orders every man on deck with a weapon in an attempt to down the low-flying Stratofortress as it passes. We’re treated to the sight of about twenty men pivoting like tracking antennas and firing in unison as the giant bomber lumbers by. It’s a wild image, this motley group of idealist mercenaries ( ? ) blasting away at what looks like an American plane. Sam Fuller must have loved this idea, as it drops all the high technology blather to get back to the Big Red One basics he understood … one can always count on small-arms riflemen. The scene perfectly expresses Fuller’s embrace of contradictory emotions: yes, yes, we know it’s to defeat an evil enemy scheme, but in visual terms The Good Guys are still trying their damnedest to shoot down an American plane!

Made when new economy-sized Hydrogen Bombs were just alerting people to the notion that Cold War aggression could really destroy the world, Hell and High Water is the damndest, most adolescent expression of confused anti-war, pro-war, peacenik, gung-ho insanity to come from a major studio. It’s irresistible.


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hell and High Water is a great improvement on the old (2007) Fox Blu-ray. For collectors wondering if it’s really worth upgrading, I can say that overall the color is more dramatic and the special effects more impressive, especially in the nighttime raid scenes. A minute or two of submarine interior scenes appear to be replacement footage that’s only a little less sharp and snappy. Joseph MacDonald went for impact over hard realism in his lighting, often hitting actors with colored rim light from random sub instrumentation. The use of CinemaScope requires a suspension of disbelief on the submarine set, as wide-angle C’scope lenses didn’t exist — no matter where the camera is placed, the interior looks far too big. But as I try to emphasize above, this is a comic book sub, not a realistic one.

Alfred Newman’s loud and repetitive music score lets us know that we’re embarking on a bold adventure; TT gives it an isolated track of its own. The jingoistic main theme is so generic, I wouldn’t be surprised if Newman had used it before in other sea-going pictures. The Fox audio department does fine sound effects work for the stereophonic track, originally mixed in four-track magnetic sound.

I thought that realistically claustrophobic submarine movies began with 1981’s Das Boot. If you get a chance, see René Clément’s highly realistic 1947 Les Maudits (The Damned). It solves most of the same problems, and even films with an authentic German U-boat!

The only thing I miss about the old DVD is its interactive press book feature, which gave us goofy publicity articles about Bella Darvi’s tight sweaters and ‘exclusive’ comments from accomplished actor David Wayne, whose part is scarcely more than a walk-on.

Repeated from the older DVD is a full-length Biography episode lauding the career of the dependable Richard Widmark. An artwork-only teaser is included, along with the original trailer that hypes the new CinemaScope process. The over-hyped text shouts like a carnival barker: “CinemaScope – the Miracle you see without special glasses!” Julie Kirgo’s liner notes tell the whole tale of Fuller & Zanuck’s face-off with none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who according to Fuller tried unsuccessfully to dictate the content of Pickup on South Street.

I saw Sam Fuller from afar for only one day on the set of 1941, where he played a general in charge of ‘Interceptor Command.’ We rented Hell and High Water at Greg Jein’s miniature shop, along with a pile of relevant war movies for research purposes. When he found out that we had a 16mm Technicolor ‘Scope print of Hell and High Water, Spielberg collected the print and threw it in the trunk of his green Mercedes-Benz, to see at home. Be he didn’t send it back to Films Incorporated. After it had been checked out for weeks, the studio apparently made some separate arrangement that allowed the director to keep the print. This I presume is the same print that Fuller mentions in his autobiography when he talks about being shown the Hell and High Water shipping case — in the trunk of Spielberg’s car!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Hell and High Water
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters TV docu, trailer, teaser trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.