In all likelihood produced with funds tied up in Britain, Sea Devils (1953) is a handsomely produced but unmemorable Technicolor historical melodrama about spies and smugglers - it's not really the swashbuckler its advertising suggests - along the English Channel in 1800. The film was produced by David E. Rose and John R. Sloan's Coronado Productions, which made somewhat classy British films with American directors and/or stars: Circle of Danger (1951), Saturday Island (1953) and, most famously, The End of the Affair (1955). In this case, stars Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson were brought over from America, along with director Raoul Walsh.
This Kit Parker Films/VCI release has no extras (other than a few trailers for other VCI titles) but the transfer is excellent, almost flawless.
Allegedly based on Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea, the resemblance in Borden Chase's screenplay is, at best, slight. On Guernsey, the British Crown Dependency off the coast of Normandy, Gilliatt (Hudson), who turned to smuggling when war put the kibosh on the area's fishing industry, becomes involved with the beautiful Droucette (De Carlo, adopting a Mid-Atlantic accent), who hires him to smuggle her into France so that she can bargain for her captive brother's life.
In fact Droucette is spying on behalf of the British Crown. A dead-ringer for a French countess now secretly held in the Tower of London, she plans to meet up with her contact across the channel, Ragan (Michael Goodliffe), a butler, in hopes of obtaining news on the French Fleet. Her timing couldn't be better, for no less than Napoleon is expected to call the very next day. However, en route to France Gilliatt falls for her and is so outraged when he later sees her on the street as the countess, that he kidnaps her right out of her boudoir and whisks her back to England.
And therein lies Sea Devils' fatal flaw. The first-half especially gets bogged-down in endless, convoluted exposition and requires its handsome male lead to act like a total idiot when he's not irritatingly lovesick. The audience knows almost from the beginning that Droucette is spying on behalf of England, not the other way around, and yet for most of the film Gilliatt sulks and whines about being lied to and continually mucks up her carefully laid intrigue. He's also rather inept: when he kidnaps Droucette from her bed Gilliatt stupidly rings the servant chord, pulling it off the wall to tie her with, and thus alerting the staff. That in almost every scene Gilliatt only makes things worse is not a good idea for a supposed hero. He also changes his mind about Droucette so many times that it becomes comical, like Bud Abbott in Abbott & Costello's famous "Pack/Unpack" routine.
But there's no denying that the film is handsomely made. Long before her career-defining stint on The Munsters, De Carlo is fetching in her myriad costumes and the channel locations and authentic settings lend the film some weight. The title, Sea Devils, is the name of Gilliatt's fishing boat, an interesting mid-sized craft of a type not usually seen in films like this. And the cast is good, including a young Bryan Forbes as Willie, Hudson's sort-of comedy relief, and Arthur Wontner as the countess's old neighbor, the Baron de Baudrec. Gérard Oury, who like Forbes later became a prominent director, plays Napoleon.
Video & Audio
VCI's all-region DVD retains the film's original RKO logo, curiously in black and white for this otherwise Technicolor film, which is presented in its original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Filmed in the three-strip process, I noticed no misaligned matrixes and the image was sharp throughout with generally true colors, though a bit cool, even purplish at times. Overall, it's one of VCI's best-looking Technicolor releases. The Dolby Digital mono audio is fine; there are no alternate language or subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
Though not particularly memorable, Sea Devils is a more than passable time-killer, attractive to look at with good performances and production values that compensate somewhat for its muddled script. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.