Rights issues** reportedly delayed the release of the wartime thriller The Enemy Below (1957), but the wait has been worth it. Fox has done a nice transfer with an especially robust CinemaScope 4.0 stereo track, and have included a smattering of extras that make this bargain-priced title a real deal.
The brisk, 98-minute actioner is set in the South Atlantic, where a Buckley Class Navy Destroyer encounters a German U-Boat on one last mission before returning home to Germany. Thus begins a tense, almost agonizingly suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse, with quietly cool Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum) trying to outwit his sly, war-weary German counterpart, Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens).
And that's it. Few films are as story-driven as The Enemy Below and it would be unfair for this reviewer to reveal much more. Though each vessel is crammed with stock sailor types, the film is almost completely bereft of characterization, and what's there has virtually no impact on the plot. As the film opens, the crew of the destroyer speculate that their newly appointed captain may be unfit for duty, having only served aboard civilian ships, including a freighter recently "cut in half by a torpedo." Nothing comes of this, nor does Murrell's long if well-written monologue about losing his new bride on the same lost ship.
Von Stolberg is even more of a cliche, a loyal soldier who hates Hitler -- we know he's not such a bad guy when he throws a dirty towel over a sign on the sub's bridge pledging allegiance to Hitler: Fuhrer befiehl wir folgen. We also like him because he hates war and dislikes the sub's one hard-core Nazi (Arthur La Ral), who naturally turns to a pile of whimpering jelly at the first sign of trouble. The German scenes are spoken entirely in English, even though the speaking parts are played entirely by German and Austrian actors.
Though the film may be painfully short on characterization, it more than compensates with believable, deliberately paced suspense that really has you glued to the screen by the final reels. The film has been compared to an almost identical and famous episode of Star Trek, "Balance of Terror," in which Captain Kirk plays a similar game of cat-and-mouse with Romulan Commander Mark Lenard. Both work partly because so much of the drama is in the low-key strategies, some purely psychological, and in the minds of the two main characters. Not a whole lot actually happens until the end, but getting there is tense and realistic. There are two unexpectedly grisly accidents that occur aboard the destroyer, both rather bloody by 1957 standards, though dramatically justified.
The realism is aided by the good use of a real Navy destroyer for many of the interiors and almost all the exteriors. The German sub is an excellent, claustrophobic set recalling Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot in some ways. More detailed than such sets usually are, it was also built on a gimble that gets quite a workout in the picture. The film won an Oscar for its special effects, which are mostly limited to large-scale miniatures that, for the period, are edited seamlessly into the action. One really imaginative shot shows a man fishing and the camera follows his line down into the water, then tilts down to reveal the sub (a miniature) directly below.
Both Mitchum and Jurgens are fine in parts that mostly demand their commanding screen presence, and they deliver the goods. The only other roles of any note is Jurgens's sympathetic second-in-command, "Heinie" Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel, before he commanded his own submarine in The Russians Are Coming!), and his American counterpart, the ship's unnamed doctor (Russell Collins). David Hedison, in his "Al" days, plays the destroyer's executive officer, and a baby-faced Doug McClure turns up in a small, uncredited role.
Leigh Harline wrote the unusual score. The first third is stock patriotic cliches, but wisely goes silent for the entire middle act, letting the ping-ping-ping of the sonar equipment and the nervous, silent running of both vessels build the suspense.
Video & Audio
Filmed in CinemaScope, The Enemy Below has the graininess and other problems inherent with those early Bausch & Lomb lenses, but otherwise this 16:9 transfer looks great. Even better is the CinemaScope, 4.0 stereo sound, which is loud and clear with fully (and aggressively) directional dialogue and sound effects. French and Spanish mono tracks are also offered, along with English and Spanish subtitles.
Included is an Original Trailer, in 1.85:1 format with 16:9 enhancement, which features an onscreen introduction by the picture's director and former Warner Bros. musical star, Dick Powell. Fox War Classics is a nice set of five trailers, enhanced where applicable: 13 Rue Madelene, The Desert Fox, The Blue Max, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and Sink the Bismark!. Finally, undated excerpts from Fox MovieTone News offer related footage: "The War Situation," "U-Boat Captured by Biplane," and "Inside the German U-Boat Base at Lorient, France." The total running time of these three newsreel clips is less than five minutes.
Full of gritty suspense and old-fashioned respect for one's enemy, The Enemy Below is a fine picture well-paced and full of terrific tension.
** Simon Baddeley writes: "I read your review of The Enemy Below and liked it (a lot) but I wonder if you could mention that the "rights issues" related to my old mentor, the author Denys Rayner DSC*, RNVR who wrote the original story. In a Wikipedia article linked to your perceptive review, had
a rather different take on the Murrell-Von Stolberg relationship which I have attempted to describe [here] with a link to The Enemy Below. Rayner changed the reconciliatory ending of his first draft after meeting an ex-U-Boat commander at a research library in London as he was completing his first novel. Thinking to have a professional to professional conversation he invited the man for lunch and was treated to a replay of the second Battle of the Atlantic which the veteran was clearly still fighting - values and all. Rayner, a
peaceable man, finished his book replaying the conflicts that lay behind his own motives for fighting 5 years at sea. He was very ill in those years (dying in 1967) and disinclined to let Hollywood (however talented those involved) change a story drawn from five highly formative years of his life. I hope this makes sense. I hope you can make a small
mention of this in your review. Denys Rayner was a great bloke who taught me much about the sea. His eldest son lives in Hawaii and (with his sister Clare and younger brother Vyvyan) holds the rights to the royalties from The Enemy Below via the Rayner Trust and was involved in the litigation to which you refer."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.