THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) ***
Director Dick Powell was the juvenile or young tenor in many musicals, who made a strange about-face and turned to often convincing tough guy roles. His most memorable one was in the film noir "Murder, My Sweet. " Later he produced an directed five features, of which Number Four, "The Enemy Below" is by far the best, and good by any standards.
It is a World War II submarine yarn about an American destroyer captained by Robert Mitchum who is hunting down a German sub in a cat-and-mouse game. The U-Boat is commanded by Curt Jurgens. His able second and good friend is played by Theodore Bikel.
A sure-handledly directed film, it may be formulaic, but with a difference, mostly because of the interesting resemblances and differences between Mitchum and Jurgens, and some solid characterizations in other roles. Naturally, it has the expected quota of stiff upper lip and "Up periscope!", some bits about humanity, and last minute sentimental touches thrown in.
Within the war film genre there is a sub-genre about undersea warfare. Within the latter, there is a sub-sub-genre--as here-- which celebrates the respect that brave, professional commanders feel for their opponents' skill and courage. There's a job to be done, and it must get done without hate, without showing the enemies as cruel men, if not monsters. In fact the main German opponents are humanized and rather "sympatisch. " The opposing commanders are not rah-rah or gung-ho, but tired of war and disillusioned.
There are several good moments that work well without pummeling you with bathos or with funny stuff. Two examples at random: 1) the Germans defiantly singing the stirring "Ich hat' ein' kamerade"; 2) the American crew in a lifeboat, returning to the sinking vessel to get their Captain and one man saying: "Come on, Sir, I'm double-parked downstairs. "
This said, the movie is still a far cry from the pronounced realism and the de-glorification of war that is found much later in the German "Das Boot" (1981), the best of submarine movies.
The action scenes are good but will not fool experienced eyes. Many shots betray the use of miniatures in a tank, with the additional dead giveaway of flames and waves that are too big. (They may make you wonder who are the lucky people who may have inherited some of those finely crafted toys. )
This 20th Century Fox film was done in CinemaScope. When shown on television not letterboxed but via the infamous pan and scan system that cuts off both sides, the loss of widescreen, so useful for giving one a good view of submarine interiors, hurts the story and the esthetics.
"The Enemy. . . " was the first film ever made with a script by Wendell Mayes, whose writing credit appears in 15 films from 1957 to 1982, including "The Spirit Of St. Louis," three Otto Preminger films ("Anatomy Of A Murder," "Advise and Consent," "In Harm's Way,") "Von Ryan's Express," and the excellent Vietnam War movie "Go Tell The Spartans. "
Walter Rossi won an Academy Award for his special sound effects. (Edwin Jahiel)