Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fire Down Below may have sounded great on paper, but it is a disastrous movie where we get to contemplate several careers that shouldn't have come together in this particular way. Over-the-hill glamour queen Rita Hayworth barely escapes with her dignity, which is more than one can say for the awful miscasting of newly-minted star Jack Lemmon. His impersonation of a tough-guy sailor is laughable, especially when set next to hulking Robert Mitchum.
The lumpy production plays like two unconvincing films grafted together and is mainly watchable to see its cast put through its embarassing paces. As an early producing effort of Albert R. Broccoli, Fire Down Below will also seem unusually familiar to devotees of the James Bond films -- it shares situations, casting, locale and music with the first Bond effort, Dr. No.
Charter boat bums Felix Bowers (Robert Mitchum) and Tony (Jack Lemmon) agree to transport hot-potato passenger-sans-passport Irena (Rita Hayworth) between islands for a hefty fee. Irena is a hardened European refugee who has been used by men and now uses them to stay ahead of the law. Alone with them on a small boat, she soon creates a rift between the hard-drinking partners.
Let's get the tenuous James Bond connection out of the way first. Fire Down Below is a production of Warwick, the partnership between Albert Broccoli and Irving Allen, who at this time were in the early stages of trying to get a James Bond movie deal going. It's easy to imagine them working on this film while hob-nobbing with Ian Fleming. Other similarities with Dr. No are probably just superficial, but we can't help noticing the presence of Bernard Lee, 007's M. Cedric Connor's Jimmy Jean boatman character corresponds fairly directly with Bond's helpmate Quarrel in Dr. No.
Broccoli and Allen split up before Bond came about, and Allen later presented his own parallel Matt Helm spy series. They both must have been concentrating on the deal-making, because Fire Down Below is a mess. The powerhouse casting puts three big names on the marquee, but the actors don't begin to mesh and are given a terrible faux-hip script to read. Even laid-back hep-cat Mitchum can't do anything with the bad dialogue lines. 1
The film looks expensive and cheap at the same time. The CinemaScope frame isn't used for anything expressive. Too many blah shots just sit there. Some reasonably good location work is negated by lots of iffy process shooting back in England, and weak stage recreations like the big party scene. A calypso band that performs the limbo under the titles, wear masks to play unrelated musicians on another carribean island later on.
It's tough to blame Robert Parrish, who has been responsible from some stunningly good movies such as
The Purple Plain. But someone has to take the fall for all the awkwardness on screen and in the performances. When we first see Lemmon and Mitchum they're wearing ridiculous 'tough-guy' sailor outfits. Mitchum looks like he was shoehorned into a silly costume, but poor Lemmon tries to act tough and is just awful. He even effects a foolish-looking tough-guy walk, holding his arms as if he had a rash in his armpits. There was a good reason Lemmon specialized in meek-mensch characters -- he doesn't convince as
a hard-drinking mug. The script, obviously not altered to fit these particular stars, pairs them in ludicrous brawls and fistfights. Robert Mitchum is a good actor, just to attempt to play these fights where Lemmon comes out on top!
The same script has Lemmon instantly attracted to Hayworth. She always carries a certain class about her but frankly no longer had the looks or the aura to turn men to jelly. Lemmon comes on strong and faithful and Rita makes speeches alluding to the darkness in her background ("I was degraded!") which a clean-thinking young man could never understand. It never begins to make sense.
Naturally, every shady character is looking for some angle to bed the desirable Hayworth, including a sleazy hotelier (Eric Pohlman) who threatens her with exposure to the police. Although he denies it at first, Mitchum's older and harder wharf rat also gravitates toward Rita. He betrays the overeager Lemmon but the romantic triangle never begins to function in a way that makes us care.
Director Parrish offers some visual nods to Rita's legacy. A shipboard swim (to a pleasantly catchy 50s vocal of the title tune) begins with Rita flipping her red hair in close-up. The shot would evoke Gilda if it didn't look so awkward composed in CinemaScope. A big mardi gras scene turns into a rather impoverished dance sequence where Rita nevertheless shows her old style in some fast moves with ubiquitous goateed dance choreographer Tutte Lemkow
(Bonjour Tristesse, The Guns of
The Fearless Vampire Killers).
This picture has enough story to fill an hour, but is padded out to almost two with the addition of a third act that seems grafted from an entire different script. Running from the law and trying to return to Rita, Jack is trapped on board a munitions ship that threatens to blow up. The entire story restarts, introducing a new set of characters. Doctor Bernard Lee, harbormaster Herbert Lom and sailor Bonar Colleano (Christ in Concrete) meander about while we wonder where the other movie went. Mitchum and Hayworth eventually show up to try and rescue Lemmon but the result is one unsatisfying storyline followed by an irrelevant chaser.
Pure marquee power apparently saved Allen and Broccoli from boxoffice doom, even though this particular trio of stars never had a prayer of making the picture float. Fire Down Below is interesting mainly as a study piece for filmmakers - they can't all be gems, but this was a real misfire.
Among the familiar lower-case English actors in the cast is Anthony Newly as a conniving bartender.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Fire Down Below is a handsome transfer of this entertaining but quizzical show. The enhanced image shows off the pretty caribbean exteriors and reveals the cheapness of some of the phony English interiors. The sound is basic but clear enough; the show has an attractive score with a tropical flavor similar to Dr. No.
There are no extras, just some Columbia promo trailers. The packaging incorrectly states the aspect ratio as 2:55, the early ('53-'54) ultra width of the earliest CinemaScope films. The cover graphic tries to blend the three actors from separate stills - note that the Hayworth image is filched from a smaller photo on the back.
Maybe office assistants are writing copy text at Columbia DVD now. The desperate blurbs on the back of this one are utter nonsense, saying that "... a wild limbo becomes a sensuous dance solo, climaxing with the suggestive removal of (Rita's) high heels." Huh? The text also tells us that Fire Down Below had critics "looking at Hayworth for the first time as a serious actress, instead of just another glamour girl." Thanks for the great transfer, Columbia, but spare us the hooey. Enjoyable messes don't come any better than this.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fire Down Below rates:
Movie: Fair +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none (promo trailers)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2004
1. Although I made a note to remember a particular zinger for some future movie montage: In one sober conversation, straight-faced Mitchum turns to the camera and says, "What, me gay?"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson