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    Hell and High Fuller

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In his tough-talking posthumously published 2002 memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, even as he confessed Hell and High Water (1954) was his least favorite film (“It’s just that the movie didn’t come from one of my own stories or original scripts.”), Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) wasn’t about to stint on giving audiences for this atomic age-themed Cinemascope submarine action picture the bang for their buck, starting with its nuclear detonation opening. “The idea of displaying the credits next to the mushroom cloud was my way of saying that this bomb may seem like an ally today but could become your worst enemy tomorrow,” he wrote. He determined to master this new widescreen Cinemascope phenomenon and visited the sets where Henry Koster and Jean Negulesco were respectfully nurturing their productions of The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire. But those two format trailblazers emphasized historical pageantry and posh glamour. “Fox executives were anxious to see if a Cinemascope movie could be made without gigantic sets and thousands of extras. They had a helluva lot of money invested in that contraption. I told [studio boss Darryl F.] Zanuck I was going to have a lot of camera movement. ‘Do whatever you want with the damn camera,’ Darryl told me. ‘Just make people forget it’s Cinemascope.’ So I had the camera moving all the time on Hell and High Water. I panned it. I put it on boom. I did dolly shots inside the submarine. I even staged the final fight scene like a ballet, with the goddamned camera swinging all over the place.” The cast included two strong Fuller veterans: Richard Widmark, who plays a former U.S. navy commander engaged to skipper a scientific consortium-funded submarine expedition to the Arctic to investigate whether a Communist force has set up a hidden operations base from which to launch nuclear attacks, recently starred in the sizzling, Red-baiting crime thriller Pickup on South Street (1953); and Gene Evans, as the vessel’s crew chief, had already rendered distinguished service in the juicy lead roles of three Fuller passion projects, The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets! (both 1951) and Park Row (1952). Other prominent roles on the operation went to Zanuck protégée Bella Darvi, Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne and, playing a wily atomic scientist, Belgian-born character actor Victor Francen, who alerted the director to some career recognition of which he was unaware. “During rehearsals one day, Victor brought a French movie magazine to the set,” Fuller recalled. “It was called Cahiers du Cinema (Cinema Notebooks). It had a distinctive yellow cover and was edited by a man named André Bazin. The magazine’s contributors were young men named Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luc Moullet. I’d never heard of the magazine or its writers. The publication was refreshing, with passionate, in-depth articles about techniques and themes in contemporary movies. Victor translated a few passages from Cahiers that praised me and my work. I was surprised and thrilled. That was the beginning of a long love affair. I was a fan of the magazine for many years. Cahiers was a fervent supporter of my work.” Because Hell and High Water, expertly photographed by Joe McDonald and rousingly scored by Alfred Newman, was a box-office success and even scored an Academy Award® nomination for Best Special Effects (executed by the studio’s reliable ace Ray Kellogg), Zanuck continued his staunch support of more personal Fuller screen efforts to follow, including House of Bamboo(1955, a Twilight Time title), China Gate and Forty Guns (both 1957). Fuller had another moviemaking giant in his corner. He recalled: “Fast-forward 25 years. Cut to 1979 and the Hollywood studio where I was doing a walk-on for Steven Spielberg in his adventure picture 1941. After lunch, Steven asked me to accompany him to the parking lot to see his car. I told him I didn’t want to see his goddamned car, but Spielberg insisted. We got out there, and he explained that he always carried one of his favorite films around with him in his trunk. He opened the trunk. Believe it or not, he had a print of Hell and High Water in there.” Whether for your vehicle’s trunk or more preferably for your home theater, you can have your own copy of the film (equipped with an Isolated Music Track in crisp 3.0 stereo of Newman’s powerful score and the retrospective documentary Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters) when it casts off for its atomically-powered secret mission on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray June 13. Preorders open May 31.