During the Cold War, a scientific team refits a Japanese submarine and hires an ex-Navy officer to find a secret Chinese atomic island base and prevent a Communist plot against America that could trigger WW3.
While the post World War II nuclear arms race may have been a scary time for some, it's impossible to deny some great entertainment came out of the cold war. As school rooms were being taught to duck and cover, Hollywood was busy at work keeping movie houses packed with tense espionage thrillers. Samuel Fuller's 1954 thriller Hell and High Water starring Richard Widmark as a battle-hardened captain mixes the claustrophobia of a submarine film with the tension of a cold war thriller creating a white-knuckle action and adventure thrill ride.
For Captain Adam Jones (Richard Widmark), World War II is history. He's done with submarines, and he's done with combat. But when Professor Montel (Victor Francen), his assistant Denise (Bella Darvi) and members of the Japanese government ask Captain Jones to help investigate strange seismic activity around the arctic circle, the hairs on the back of the skilled seaman's neck stand on edge. Something doesn't smell right about this mission and no amount of soothing from scientists will put his worries at ease. With a recommissioned Japanese diesel sub and a crack crew of misfits under his command, Jones along with Professor Montel, and Denise set sail for the Arcticc. They soon discover that the mysterious seismic activity is all part of a diabolical plot designed to trigger World War III.
You've got to tip your hat to director Samuel Fuller for knowing how to craft strong character pieces with an instinctual ability to ratchet up the tension. Well-drawn characters with efficient story telling are the core strengths working for Hell and High Water. Even the smallest member of the crew of the submarine has some sort of defining character beat. You may not remember their name by the time the picture ends, but you at least remember their presence. When the sub has to go quiet and rest at the bottom of the ocean while an enemy sub hunts them down, you feel the need to hold your breath too. When a submarine movie does things right, when the tension and suspense are firing on all cylinders, you're in for a hell of a great ride. Hell and High Water delivers.
It's probably due to the fact that I saw The Hunt for Red October and The Abyss in theaters during my cinematic formative years that makes submarine movies so damn enthralling. The idea that if one thing goes wrong, if one person screws up that the whole vessel could go down taking everyone with it is what simultaneously scares the hell out of me and keeps my eyes glued to the screen. I wouldn't want to blink at the wrong moment and miss something that throws our heroes into peril. I'm talking about moments like when Victor Francen's Professor Montel gets his hand caught in the hatch as the crew is forced to make an emergency dive to avoid fire from a Chinese sub that makes a film like Hell and High Water an engrossing film to watch.
If you haven't noticed by now, I had a hell of a great time with Hell and High Water. Enjoyed the action, I loved the espionage angle, and I got a kick out of watching Richard Widmark play the heavy. That said, Hell and High Water isn't quite a perfect film. It's got some rough edges. One issue at play is the fact that it was filmed in Cinemascope. While an odd choice to film a tight and confined submarine with such a wide screen format may strike some as odd, Fuller makes great usage of the space to fill it with men and equipment.
However, this wide image also gives almost too much room as for several scenes, it's easy to spot that the film was shot on a soundstage with extra floor space breaking the illusion just a little bit. On top of that, there is a bit of a hammy love story shoved into the film between Widmark's Captain Jones and Bella Darvi's Denise that just feels out of place. Their characters aren't enriched by this shared passion and are simply going through the motions because that's what happens between a male and female lead in every movie of this era. There are a couple of other plot conveniences that stick out a bit, but they're nothing too major. Just me being picky.
Aside from my small gripes about plot and scene staging, there's very little to complain about with Hell and High Water. The film is a tense and thrilling cold war adventure that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. A great cast, strong writing, and skilled direction ensure that the film always moves forward with little waste or lag time to pull you out of the plot. If you're new to Hell and High Water, get ready for a great ride. It floats with the best alongside the likes of Run Silent, Run Deep, and The Enemy Below.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Twilight Time brings Hell and High Water to Blu-ray with a limited edition run of 3,000 copies. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a clear sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as a terrific essay from Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Hell and High Water arrives with a strong 2.55:1 1080p transfer. There's no indication of the vintage of this transfer, but it appears to have been recent. The film looks practically flawless with little to no sign of age-related wear and tear. Grain is retained giving the image a nice film-like appearance. Details are strong throughout allowing for plenty of fine facial features and production design details to reach the screen. Colors are bold and beautiful with rich primaries. Blues have an especially pronounced dominance. Reds also enjoy some pop whenever the sub "goes dark." Black levels are well balanced giving the image a nice three-dimensional presence. The only issues of note come around the few frames that surround the optical transitions. Colors can get a little rough and some of the transitions show an increased grain presence. Also, scenes with projected backgrounds or optical effects can look a bit rough around the edges, but otherwise still maintain a strong visual presentation.
Hell and High Water comes packed with a loud and effective English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and an equally impressive English TS-HD MA 2.0 stereo audio track. Either way you slice it, both tracks get the job done. The film nails tension through sound. One moment you're enjoying your typical high seas action and adventure film, the next, you're stuck in the paces of an edge of your seat thriller where the slightest sound could mean life of death for the heroes. On land, sea, or under the water, the film is constantly playing with these dynamics and the audio track handles the tonal shifts perfectly. Dialogue is always clean and clear without any interference or trouble with accompanying elements. Free of any hiss, pops, or other age-related anomalies, this film enjoys two terrific audio tracks.
Hell and High Water doesn't feature the biggest and best of bonus features, but what's here is pretty good. As with any Twilight Time release, the essay by Julie Kirgo is a terrific read and should be given at least a once over by any fan of this film. The Richard Widmark AMC retrospective is also a solid bonus feature.
Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters (SD 44:33)
Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:27)
Admittedly, Hell and High Water isn't the best cold war thriller to come out of 1950s Hollywood, but it's a damn fine picture just the same. Richard Widmark was always a strong leading presence and here he proves once again that he's no slouch when it comes to playing a character in a position of command and authority. Twilight Time has done a great job bringing this film to Blu-ray delivering a disc with a great video transfer and two stellar audio tracks to chose from. Bonus features may be a bit on the slim side, but the isolated score track is a great listen. As a fan of the genre, I really enjoyed Hell and High Water and this is a pretty terrific package. Fans should absolutely pick it up while newcomers should definitely consider a purchase. Recommended.