Friday 15 September 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare's challenge to cinephiles "anyone who can't love a movie like HELL AND HIGH WATER doesn't love movies".

Fuller favorite RIchard Widmark (Adam) rubs his cheek against the periscope like a kitten while the wonderful, too seldom cast Bella Darvi (Denise) sorts out the fleshy and greasy all male submarine crew with a charm school lesson in gender politics that has them licking it up in Fuller's completely mad apocalyptic and wonderful Cold War, Chinese Commie, camp masterpiece Hell and High Water from 1954.

I first saw this and fell in love with it in the 60s back in the KIngs Cross Gaiety Theatre days where a knockout Tech IB print of it used to often play there. Fuller was the perfect director for those totally honest, completely non-bourgeois or hideous pretentious arthouse audiences, along with Visconti at least for his high period up to and including Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa (Sandra) from 1965. These were two directors that genuinely moved the crowd physically and emotionally, and which allowed us to relate to the screen, often verbally with shouting, cheering, booing and general concurrence. Cinema going has never been as engaging for me and was best avoided if I could, until perhaps the fabulous full house for Lube's Trouble in Paradise (1932) earlier this year in Bologna in which a substantially first time young audience to the picture again lapped it up like kittens with cream and gave the movie thunderous applause for minutes at the end and the final credits.

Bella Darvi, Hell and High Water
And that's how Fuller makes movies, you can never be unengaged from them. This one for all the supposed hokum and drop in his quality is no different to any of his greatest fifties pictures to my mind. Some writers condescendingly ascribe the idea of naivety or fauvist characterization to the background crew/chorus characters here. But their dialogue and actions are actually cleverly constructed to incorporate them into - literally - a chorus and a prediction of how the audience will react, without ever taking the spontaneity of the audience's reactions from us.

And the submarine crew here is as sociologically diverse and emblematic for 50s American movies as is the group of atomic scientists, nationally and linguistically (Bella speaks at least six languages here as do the crew. And Fuller makes a big deal about showing the diversity.) Perhaps the most unexpected of the crew characters is an almost outrageously openly gay David Wayne, playing a kind of ship jester mostly shot with baretop, in line with the other beefcake specimens of greasepaint and brawn who elaborately depict a backdrop of masculinity and muscle to play off in counterpoint to Fuller's central romance between Adam and Denise, Labor and Science, with a central, very long take of an astonishing four minutes in the cabin love scene completely saturated and printed in screaming deep (Commie and Passion) red, to a depth that only the old dye transfer prints could render properly.

The encode is from a splendid new transfer by Fox for Twilight Time, and the disc is region free. I've only said this once before in relation to the superb BD disc of Dracula's Daughter and the 30s and 40s Universal Horror cycles but anyone who can't love a movie like Hell and High Water doesn't love movies.
The Kings Cross Gaiety


  1. Fuller told me about the genesis of HELL AND HIGH WATER. Zanuck was having trouble launching CinemaScope and asked who was the dumbest director on the lot. The minions all picked Samuel Fuller so they gave the film to him to show anyone could use the process.

    There was also Fuller's briefing to the Admiral they had as technical adviser. He explained his function to the man. "If there's any kind of disagreement, I'll turn round to you and say 'That's right isn't it admiral?' and you nod."

  2. And so it came to pass!


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