Sunday 27 October 2019

Movie Review: The Enemy Below (1957)

A tense naval warfare action movie, The Enemy Below distills World War Two to a classy battle of wits between an American destroyer and a German U-boat.

The destroyer USS Haynes is patrolling the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum). The days are long and the men are itching for action. When the radar picks up signs of an enemy vessel Murrell gives chase and catches up with a German U-boat commanded by Captain von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens) on its way to an important rendezvous.

Murrell carries a fatalistic attitude, having already faced the horrors of military loss at sea, while von Stolberg is tired of war and sceptical about the Nazi party. Both men are wily commanders, and a lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as the two vessels take turns outmanoeuvring each other. Murrell attempts to anticipate von Stolberg's every navigational turn and drops depth charges to attack the U-boat, while the German commander deploys subterfuge and courage to escape, hide and launch torpedo strikes when the opportunity arises.

A chess match at sea with lethal consequences, The Enemy Below seeks the characters behind the war and strips the conflict of its geopolitical complexity. An adaptation of the 1956 novel by Denys Rayner, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, here the struggle for global supremacy between competing ideologies becomes a one on one duel between two enemy vessels that happen to come across each other in the vast and otherwise lonely ocean.

Director Dick Powell builds the film's strength on the personalities of the two commanders, and invests the time to define Murrell and von Stolberg as men of war who wish they were not. Murrell carries emotional scars of a lost ship and a lost love, but instead of withdrawing now projects a steely determination and gutsiness to challenge the limits. von Stolberg is too canny to buy into the Third Reich's fervour and carries a particular disdain for Hitler, evidenced by nonchalantly throwing his jacket to cover the word "Fuhrer" dominating the sub's interior. He also views with a mixture of bemusement and disgust a young submariner's fervour for the cause.

Both Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens are in fine form, displaying quiet authority and analytical leadership laced with calculated risks to earn the respect of their men. In a relatively underpowered supporting cast, the captains are surrounded by loyal officers. Theodore Bikel is Heinie, von Stolberg long-time friend on board the U-boat. Al Hedison is Lieutenant Ware, Murrell's executive officer, while Russell Collins is the USS Haynes doctor, and the captain's most trusted colleague.

The Enemy Below is set entirely at sea, and the special effects are excellent for the era. The second half of the film reaches and maintains a deliciously elevated level of tension as the two vessels close in each other and both captains realize they are up against a worthy opponent. The climax combines the close quarters showdown between hardware built for war with the humanity of men who understand that when the fighting is done, there will be a world waiting to be rebuilt.

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