Monday, March 14, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Enemy Below" (1957)

One of the things I always appreciated about Humphrey Bogart is that he doesn't look like a movie star -- with his stopped posture, unimposing stature, scarred lips, slurred speech and (reputed) toupee, he was nobody's idea of handsome. And yet he commanded the screen with his soulful eyes and the way he rolled his jaw.

Robert Mitchum, on the other hand, looks every inch the movie star. I have this theory about stars that mostly applies to women but, to a lesser degree, men as well. It's not enough that they be attractive. There are thousands of perfect-looking models who never make it in the movies. The may lack the acting ability, but looks play a role, too. People respond to actors who are not only handsome, but have a distinct look that sets them apart.

Take Julia Roberts. Her sparkly eyes, cascade of curls and iconic horsey smile make her not only beautiful, but unforgettable. Audiences don't want blandly beautiful, but performers who stand out and are memorable.

Mitchum was a tall, good-looking lug, but very much in a distinct way all his own. If you look at him in profile, his entire face seems to be sloping forward like an arrowhead, with his eyes marking the tip of the point. It gives him this aggressive, confident quality that he carried in all his roles. His eyes were famously baggy, but set deep and so wide apart they seemed to have a mournful tilt. His long nose and jaw fell straight down to a chin that seemed less dimpled than cleft with an axe.

"The Enemy Below" may not have been Mitchum's greatest acting job, but the movie doesn't really call for one. Mitchum, who liked to say that acting is mostly about showing up, hitting your marks and not flubbing your lines, manages to do just that here. Jurgens fares better, getting in a few licks as a reluctant warrior who fights for his country rather than the current regime.

It's a straightforward World War II picture, a battle of wits between an American destroyer captain (Mitchum) and a German submarine commander (Curt Jurgens). Mitchum really doesn't have much to do other than snap orders, with the exception of one brief scene where he confides in the ship's doctor (Russell Collins) that he was a merchant ship captain before the war, and that his wife was killed when his boat was cut in two by a U-boat torpedo.

Still, while recognizing that it's not any sort of great piece of acting by Mitchum or a searing portrait of war, if one accepts "The Enemy Below" as an action-filled war movie, it's thoroughly entertaining stuff.

Director Dick Powell -- a busy actor who also directed a half-dozen flicks, including Mitchum in "The Hunters" -- and screenwriter Wendell Mayes concern themselves with the manly exploits of naval combat, with a few human scenes tossed in to give it a little color. Interestingly, it's based on a book by D.A. Rayner, a British naval officer who saw plenty of anti-submarine combat. All the Brit characters were changed to Yanks for the movie.

For awhile, we follow the conversations of two or three swabbies aboard the USS Haynes expressing their concern about the fitness of their new captain, and I figured they'd pop up now and again as sort of a resident Greek chorus. But the movie misplaces them after the first 20 minutes or so. There's also an African-American sailor constantly mopping the deck who sneaks into a couple of conversations, I guess to comment on on the segregation of the military during WWII. By 1957, when "Enemy" came out, the forces were mostly integrated.

The battle scenes are indeed impressive for the time, although one doesn't have to look too hard to spot when the edits cut from footage of the real vessels to the models. The film won an Oscar for special effects.

All the hallmarks of the submarine genre are here -- the pinging sonar, the worrying creak of the hull as the captain orders the ship below the maximum recommended depth, the shaking as depth charges explode, one man freaking out at the claustrophobic setting, etc. What's notable about "The Enemy Below" is it was one of the first films to show the Germans on the receiving end.

Even 24 years later, the great "Das Boot" was considered groundbreaking (and controversial) for daring to show German submariners as brave and true.

The film ends with both ships fatally wounded, and the American skipper saves the German captain and his number two (Theodore Bikel) before the automatic detonators blow up the U-boat. The idea of Americans and German being equally capable of nobility and depravity was still pretty bold in 1957.

3 stars out of four

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