A routine World War II meller (as Variety liked to say) about a Navy demolition team's efforts to destroy a wrecked sub before it falls into enemy hands, Operation Bikini (1963) is made much worse than it already is by amateurish direction and a weak, uncharismatic leading performance. Despite a gimmick intended to liven things up, it ranks among producer-distributor AIP's worst movies of the period. Considering AIP also released Reptilicus and Invasion of the Star Creatures around this time, that's no small feat.
An MGM Limited Edition Collection MOD title, the black-and-white Operation Bikini gets a decent 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer. Three separate color sequences have been retained and are included in their original form.
In August 1944, an elite underwater demolition team (UDT) commanded by Lt. Morgan Hayes (Tab Hunter) rendezvous with an American submarine captained by Emmett Carey (Scott Brady). The UDT's mission is to destroy a sunken American sub off "Bikini Island" before its top-secret equipment, an advanced radar system, falls into the hands of the Japanese.
An artificial conflict arises between the team and the sub's crew (including an uncredited Dick Bakalyan), inexplicably resentful of their presence, and this dominates the picture's first half. Later, the team reaches the island and joins forces with local guerillas, including Reiko (Hungarian-born Eva Six), who falls in love with Hayes.
The plot's machinations are woefully familiar and predicable. After watching the film for more than an hour, I glanced at the display on my DVD player and was shocked to realize that, no, in fact only 23 minutes had passed.
The characters are all war movie stereotypes, and actors like Gary Crosby (introspective one), Michael Dante (hot-headed second-in-command), and Jody McCrea (good ol' boy) play them that way. Jim Backus is wildly miscast as the Ward Bond role, the no-nonsense bosun's mate, though it's amusing to see him attempt something so offbeat.
Star Tab Hunter is just hopeless, however. His stiff performance is totally disengaged. (He was up for a role in The Leopard at the time and considered this a big come-down. Yep.) He's playing a take-charge leader but his eyes are glazed over and he mumbles his dialogue. In one scene he has to react to the death of someone he's close to, and Hunter looks totally confused, as if he has no idea how to play it. Hunter could be adequate in the right part and with good direction, and he had a sense of irony and humor largely unrecognized until John Waters cast him in the hilarious Polyester (1981), but in this, like his character, Hunter is at sea.
Frankie Avalon, as Seaman Joseph Malzone, bunks directly under a torpedo, to which he affixes a picture of his girl back home. The photograph spurs a dream sequence, during which the otherwise black-and-white movie switches to color, though Frankie himself remains a pale gray during the sequence, giving the impression that Malzone is seasick. In the dream he sings "The Girl Back Home," a Bobby Darin-esque tune in which Malzone is torn between his hometown girl (Nancy Dusina) and a voluptuous fantasy figure (Judy Lewis). The song is quite bad, with absurd lyrics ("This one's got hips, that make me fly and want to do flips!"), but Avalon tries hard to sell it.
Unfortunately and quite bizarrely, about 10 minutes later Malzone nods off again, and the entire sequence is repeated, from beginning to end, for no clear reason except maybe to bring the film up to its 80-minute running time. At the end of the picture, an uncredited William Shatner provides narration explaining the Bikini atoll's subsequent role in atomic tests and ends with one last color scene, cheesecake footage of two women in bikinis frolicking on a beach.
Anthony Carras, a sound/picture editor on several of Roger Corman's films and later a producer for AIP, including most of the later Beach Party films, directed Operation Bikini. Clearly the job was beyond his abilities, for the picture is abysmally directed, with no sense of pacing, composition, storytelling, or even basic spatial relationships. It's a confusing, eye-straining, headache-inducing mess.
Although AIP was shooting most of its films in color and 'scope by 1963, Operation Bikini is (mostly) black-and-white and in 1.66:1 widescreen. This is because of its preponderance of lively if mismatching stock footage. Some of this material seems to be actual wartime newsreel-type footage, but there is also much elaborate miniature work that appears Japanese in origin. As AIP was at this time negotiating with several different Japanese companies, and would later mine several Soviet-made films, building entirely new stories around their special effects footage, it seems entirely possible this mysterious footage (from Toho's Eagle of the Pacific maybe?) was acquired that way.
Video & Audio
Operation Bikini, in 1.66:1 enhanced widescreen, gets a passing grade. The film is more than a little washed out, but the color inserts are there as they should be, and as bad as the film is I'm glad to have at least seen an acceptable presentation. The region 1 encoded DVD offers Dolby Digital mono, also okay, with no alternate audio or subtitle options. No Extra Features.
Fans of AIP's drive-in movies might consider giving this a spin, but there's really not much to recommend it, even with its decent cast and fun if gimmicky color inserts. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.