Monday, September 13, 2010

Underwater! (1955)



Almost as funny as Charlton Heston's playing a Mexican detective in Touch of Evil is Jane Russell's playing a Cuban newlywed in Howard Hughes' Underwater!. She gets top billing, but her role is actually a supporting one. The main character is Richard Egan's Johnny Gray, a former underwater demolitions expert who's recently moved to Cuba and married Theresa (Russell).

Johnny's best friend is a treasure-hunting conman named Dominic Quesada (Gilbert Roland, who also played the Cisco Kid in the movies). Dominic believes that he's discovered an important wreck in shark-infested waters, so with the help of a local priest who knows the wreck's history and a woman named Gloria - who's only real function in the movie is to own the boat the team uses (actress Lori Nelson had a much better part in Revenge of the Creature that same year) - he and the Grays try to recover the treasure. Two things complicate the operation: 1) the ship is perched precariously over the edge of a huge cliff and could fall over while the divers are poking around, and 2) a group of disreputable-looking shark hunters keep dropping by to see what the group is up to (and don't seem to be buying the story about hunting for rocks).

As much as I love underwater stories, it's often easy for filmmakers to get so wrapped up in photographing the setting that the story drags. That's not a problem for Underwater!. There's a lot of cool photography - especially of sharks - but director John Sturges (The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven) never stops the action to make us spend a lot of time on it. One of the ways he does that though is also a weakness in the movie. Egan narrates a lot of it, which keeps things moving, but also means that the audience is often being told what's going on instead of allowed to experience it for themselves.

The story itself is exciting. The threats are real and I was always curious to see what was going to happen next, even if I wasn't particularly invested in the divers' finding the treasure because they're so unlikable. Johnny and Dominic are charming enough guys, but they're also greedy and devious. Theresa occasionally objects to Johnny's more selfish decisions - and he initially caves to her objections - but all he has to do is pout and mope to make her back down. It's not that I didn't like her, it's just that she was too weak to affect his actions in any meaningful way. Even the priest - while never actively participating in any ruthlessness - turns a blind eye when Johnny and Dominic invite the hunters aboard to get them drunk and then pull weapons on them. The movie makes an effort to redeem at least Johnny at the end, but his transformation comes out of nowhere and feels contrived rather than legitimate.

When Johnny and Theresa aren't arguing though, they're a sweet couple and seem committed to making their relationship work. They've only known each other for a little over a year, so they're still learning about each other. And though Theresa sees a darker side of Johnny's character than she's seen before - and the revelation threatens to tear them apart - she never comes across as wanting to ditch him. And Johnny, for all his faults, loves her too. I'm not saying whether they stay together at the end - or even whether they both survive the adventure - I'm just saying that I became invested enough in them as a team that I really wanted them to.

Three out of five sunken galleons.
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