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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Hell and High Water
Hell and High Water
Fox // Unrated // May 22, 2007
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted June 17, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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"Each man has his own reasons for living, Mr. Jones, and his own price for dying."

Samuel Fuller pretty much embodies the cigar-chomping, cranky movie director cliché. The tough-talking auteur made two-fisted films that took no prisoners, from his cynical Korean War drama The Steel Helmet through his surreal indie Shock Corridor and the unromantic war epic The Big Red One. He was a maverick who would embody a certain spirit of striking out and doing things on his own, but he was also able to navigate the studio system and make movies for Darryl F. Zanuck. He was comfortable with using B-picture tropes and the guise of popular entertainment, and so he didn't mind making a big crowd pleaser for the company.

Hell and High Water is one of those pictures.

A post-War submarine movie twitching with nervous energy about the Atomic Age, 1954's Hell and High Water stars Richard Widmark as Captain Adam Jones, a Navy man with a checkered military career from his time commanding a sub in the Pacific. Now a private citizen, he has adopted the attitude that the War was a bit of a personal flub where he stuck his neck out for free. Swearing to do so never again, he signs on to a private project run by an international group of scientists only because they can meet his price.

The mission Jones will be undertaking is sailing a retrofitted sub out of Japanese waters and toward the Arctic Sea. The scientists have detected some activity on an unexplored island and they believe Iron Curtain forces are developing nuclear weapons there. No country is ever really named, though we do know the Chinese are involved. It's the Red Menace in all its glory, but it's also a Sam Fuller world where no flag is really as important as all that. Jones stands alone, with good guys on one side of him and bad guys on the other. He may seem mercenary, but I don't think there's ever any question of his loyalty. He might claim to be in it for the dough, but his morality is deeper than that. Some things are right, and some are wrong. As indicated by Professor Montel (Victor Francen), the scientist that Jones must take on the excursion with him, all men have their price, but it extends beyond bank accounts.

Adding further complication to the mission is the fact that the professor's assistant is a woman, and a fairly attractive French one at that. Played by Bella Darvi, Denise causes much dissension in the ranks. Some of the sailors want her there for less than scientific reasons, some want her ejected from the craft because women are Jonahs--bad luck charms that sink ships. Denise and the Captain have both friction and attraction in their relationship. She finds some of his techniques brutish, just one of the many lines Fuller draws quite broadly between the macho fraternity of the sailors and the egghead concerns of their employers. A captain's job is to get things done, whereas a professor gathers information and thinks it out. Yet, they both serve their purpose, and they are all of one stripe when it comes to the ultimate sacrifice.

Of course, Fuller is having it both ways, as well. Hell and High Water may be a movie with ideas, as hamfisted as they may be, but it's also an action movie, and sometimes that ham will have to be tenderized on the faces of the enemy. There are several strong battle scenes in the film, and the director makes pretty good use of models to portray his underwater action. Submarines aren't the most thrilling machines to watch in a duel, they don't exactly move at incredible speeds, but Fuller knows how to wring the tension out of the various conflict scenarios. Plot-wise, the film is not extremely sophisticated. Story points of the most obvious flavor are wielded like blunt instruments, used to shove the nonsense out of the way and get on with it. This is all what makes a Sam Fuller movie enjoyable, however. Though he can sometimes be sneaky and slip in a subversive moment (or, you know, eighty), you go to Sam to be pummeled. His movies make us feel like we've got it all wrong, that life isn't that complicated, and you do what you have to do to get by and that's all. In Hell and High Water, there's the guys who want to blow stuff up, and then there's the guys who don't let them. What will it take for you to stand firm with the latter?


Hell and High Water gets high marks for what is a pretty crisp 2.55:1 wide widescreen anamorphic transfer (Cinemascope!). There is very little by way of glitches here, and the colors are all vibrant. Fox has really given this middle catalogue title the full treatment.

The original English audio is given a 4.0 surround mix, and it's also really nice. The test of any action film is the sound effects, and the explosions here boom in the speakers. Since it's a sub movie, there are also scenes where the crew has to go silent to avoid sonar, and the sound team keeps the atmosphere intact.

Viewers can also choose a French dub mixed in mono, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.

There are two Hell and High Water specific galleries: the interactive press book from the original release, which you can navigate with your remote control, and a video program showing stills from the movie and promotional materials. For movie specific extras, we also get the original theatrical trailer.

The meatiest supplement is the inclusion of the A&E Biography segment on Richard Widmark, Strength of Characters. I'm always happy when Fox includes these shows on their DVDs, and this 45-minute episode doesn't disappoint. Though the overview of the actor's life and career doesn't specifically touch on Hell and High Water, we do get some time spent on his other Sam Fuller movie, Pick-Up on South Street, and there are parallels to the type of man Widmark plays in both Fuller pictures.

Though not one of Sam Fuller's best, Hell and High Water is crowd-pleasing entertainment. Submarine warfare, a no-nonsense hero, a beautiful scientist, and the atomic threat--these aren't dandy film concepts we're toying with here, but the stuff of mighty action. Widmark is an excellent lead, and the action on and off the submersible gets the blood pumping. Recommended.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

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