Deceptively simple but densely layered, WWII drama The Enemy Below (1957) wrings almost every ounce of suspense from its brief 98-minute running time. Directed by Dick Powell (yes, that Dick Powell) with a screenplay by actor-turned-writer Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, The Spirit of St. Louis), this effective cat-and-mouse thriller remains a textbook example of Hollywood polish applied to smooth over history with successful cinematic results. Our story follows Lieutenant Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum) of the USS Haynes as his crew attempts to destroy a German U-Boat led by Kapitan von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens) in the South Atlantic...but the battle isn't a short one, and both sides gradually begin to respect one another as death is repeatedly avoided.
It's not exactly 100% original storytelling, yet Powell's film can still be considered groundbreaking and influential for its attempt to portray a semi-realistic representation of submarine warfare. As proof of its considerable footprint, The Enemy Below was even adapted for TV twice in 1966: most famously as Star Trek first-season episode "Balance of Terror", and virtually remade as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea second-season episode "Killers of the Deep".
The film's layer of Hollywood gloss might make The Enemy Below read like a surface-level production, but it covers the cinematic bases so effectively that WWII film enthusiasts (or fans of Denys Rayner's source novel, which has been changed quite a bit) won't mind too much. Unlike most films of this type, The Enemy Below doesn't exactly start with a bang: the tension builds gradually more often than not, ramping up considerably during the second half when Leigh Harline's patriotic score lets the film's well-structured sound design take over. From here on out, The Enemy Below dives deep into cat-and-mouse suspense...and I'd be doing first-time viewers a disservice by going any further. Instead, just know that The Enemy Below is a sturdy and stylish tale of survival at sea; one that even managed to carve out and maintain its own slice of the now-crowded "submarine suspense" genre. It plays almost all of its cards exactly right, and can still be thoroughly enjoyed almost 60 years after its original release.
Unfortunately, Kino's new Blu-ray of The Enemy Below, arriving a full 12 years after Fox's respectable 2004 DVD, disappoints in almost every department. The A/V presentation is more of a side-step than an improvement (and may or may not be horizontally stretched a bit), while the lack of real extras---even most of the meager ones from Fox's disc are missing---doesn't exactly make this a terrific value. I'm glad that Kino has been faithfully churning out catalog Blu-rays that wouldn't see the light of day otherwise, but they can do much better than this.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio*, The Enemy Below looks...questionable on Blu-ray, enough so that I wish I had the 2004 DVD on hand for direct comparison. There's an awful amount of dirt and debris on display here, as well as a handful of subtle color shifts and uneven black levels (especially a number of scenes on board the German boat). Of course, it's not all bad: overall image detail and texture is quite good at times and it's obvious that this is a 1080p presentation more often than not, as evidenced by textures and film grain that just wouldn't be possible on DVD. But overall, this looks pretty disappointing and it's obvious that little to no restoration work was done here.
* - I can't be completely sure, but, the image also appears to be horizontally stretched by about 10% or so; enough so that everything and everyone appears just a little bit "stocky". If anyone's got the resources and ambition to do a direct comparison with another DVD or Blu-ray, I'd love to know if my suspicions are correct.
NOTE: The promotional images featured on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the title under review.
More bad news in the audio department: while the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track may sound better than expected to new viewers, it's not as immersive and dynamic as the 4.0 stereo track included on just about every other home video version of The Enemy Below since 2004 (including the DVD). Dialogue sounds a bit hollow at times and there are some notable volume shifts along the way, but explosions and other well-placed sound effects are relatively clean, well-defined, and more substantial than in most films from this era. Unfortunately, the optional English subtitles from the DVD haven't been carried over either, which might make a few conversations tough to decipher.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The menu includes options for playback, chapter selection, and a few Theatrical Trailers
(including one for the film), with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package comes in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork; no insert, slipcover, or Bonus Features
are included (aside from the trailer), which is more than a little disappointing. Even those brief Movietone clips from the Fox DVD didn't make the cut.
The Enemy Below is a dated but still thoroughly enjoyable WWII drama, lacking the full body of more substantial films like Das Boot but offering plenty of action and suspense that holds plenty of weight during its second half. Featuring enjoyable performances, clever sound design, and more than enough cat-and-mouse momentum to satisfy seasoned war film enthusiasts, it's worth revisiting almost 60 years later. Unfortunately, Kino's Blu-ray is a disappointment in every single category: the image is in dire need of restoration (and may be horizontally stretched), the 2.0 audio is slightly neutered from its original 4.0 presentation, and some of the 2004 DVD's meager bonus features haven't even been carried over. The Enemy Below deserves better than this, enough so that I'd recommend importing this Region A Blu-ray from Japan or just keeping the DVD instead. Skip It, or rent this one at the very most.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.