The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Enemy Below

While a majority of WWII movies cover the campaigns on land and air in both the European and Pacific theaters, there's a cool little genre within the WWII genre, the submarine movie.  The 1950s were ripe with these flicks of submarine commanders in the Atlantic or Pacific aiding the war effort on either side.  These submarines were such a new technology that audiences ate the movies up, and there was a lot of them.  I'd seen many of them and finally watched 1957's The Enemy Below this week.

What took me so long in watching this movie was that most of the 1950s WWII movies from major studios were pretty flat, interested more in the spectacle of what was on the screen than making it interesting story-wise.  There were these great premises, loaded casts, and then that was it.  As a viewer, we were supposed to be content with just watching what was on-screen without having anything invested in it.  Director Dick Powell expands on just the visual, delivering a great cat and mouse submarine story that also wisely tells the story from both the German and American perspectives. 

It's midway through WWII, and the U.S.S. Haynes is on patrol in the south Atlantic.  A new commander, Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum), has taken over in recent weeks, but the crew is worried about the new officer possibly being a jinx having seen no action since he came on board. Seemingly miles away from the action, the radar picks something up, leading Murrell to think the destroyer has found a German U-boat on patrol.  Playing it coy, Murrell holds his ship back, waiting to see what the U-boat does.  A few miles ahead, German commander Von Stolberg (Curd Jurgens) is aware of what's following him but with an important mission tasked to him knows he can't play his hand too early. With help days away for either crew, the two captains prepare for a battle that could end with both ships at the bottom of the ocean.

Right off the bat, I liked this movie because of its intelligence.  This is a story interested in battle tactics and strategies where other movies would just show a destroyer chasing down a U-boat with no explanation offered.  'Enemy' tries to keep the viewer at a point where they always know what's going on, and in that way is a sign of things to come with other sub movies like Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October.  Throw out the overdone score from composer Leigh Harline because the natural sounds are more appropriate. It is the sounds of radar and sonar pinging, the ca-chung of a depth charge being fired, the silence of a crew waiting for an explosion that makes the movie almost unbearably tense to watch. You feel like you're there with Mitchum's crew waiting for an inbound torpedo to be sighted, or Jurgen's crew waiting for a depth charge to rip the submarine apart.

A title card at the end of the movie thanks the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense for all their cooperation in making this movie, and do they ever deserve it.  Besides some obvious uses of miniatures late in the movie's finale, most of the movie looks to have been filmed on an actual U.S. destroyer at sea.  Just like the natural sounds working their magic, a movie gets a ton of credibility when you actually see star Robert Mitchum at the conning tower of a destroyer on open water.  Even better, Mitchum in frame why a few hundred yards back a whole screen of depth charges go off, jetting water several hundred feet straight up into the air, almost like you can feel the blast of the water on your face.  Other similar movies might have cut away to some stock footage, but 'Enemy' shows the process as realistically as possible with the cast involved.  Good choice, Mr. Powell.

Now if it was just 97 minutes of this footage, it would get tiresome, but the cat and mouse game that ensues works so well because Mitchum and Jurgens in the lead roles.  I will always give a war movie a try that attempts to show the war from both sides, not just one or the other.  We get to see that there were good and bad soldiers/sailors on either side.  Depending on the story, there is no need to demonize the enemy.  Here, Mitchum and Jurgens are human beings, not killing machines with a bloodlust.  Mitchum's Murrell lost his wife when a German U-boat sunk the ship they were on, and Jurgens saw both of his sons killed for the Third Reich.  Seeing these characters do their job is half the fun of the movie.  They do it because it is their job, and they want to protect their crews.  The only way to do that is to take out the enemy right in front of them.

The cat and mouse game between the two captains highlights the movie and helps it through the parts that lean toward the tedious at times.  Each man can predict what the other is doing, not because the actions are predictable or easy to figure out; they just know exactly what they would do in that situation.  The chase continues over hundreds of miles and several days as either man tries to get a hand up on the other.  The ending goes for a message of hope that is fitting considering the story that led up to the finale.  There were two ways it could go. One, both ships go down, or two, one side wins.  'Enemy' finds a nice middle ground, but I can't spoil it here.  It's a moving ending to an above average story. I'm also pretty sure the DVD cover is not Jurgens on the right, but who knows?

The Enemy Below <---trailer (1957): ***/****

No comments:

Post a Comment