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A reason for living and a price for dying
A UK region 2 DVD review of HELL AND HIGH WATER by Slarek

No-one could play cynical self-interest quite like Richard Widmark, and if his Oscar-nominated debut role as Tommy Udo in the 1947 Kiss of Death is anything to go by, no-one could play nasty quite like him either. It's these memorable Widmark traits that created the only real blot on the otherwise thrilling copybook of Michael Crichton's 1978 medical thriller Coma. Casting Widmark as the chief surgeon and then expecting an audience not to realise he's the bad guy is frankly asking too much. It's a fine performance, but from the moment he appears there might as well be a huge red sign above his head saying "Do not trust this man!" But let's stick to cynical for now, and if you want to see Widmark do this one to perfection then I urge you to hunt out Samuel Fuller's gripping 1953 Pickup on South Street. In it, Widmark plays a pickpocket who by chance lifts a stolen microfilm that's on its way to enemy hands and, ignoring appeals to his patriotism, kicks off a bidding war between the US authorities and their Communist foes.

Directed by Fuller the following year, Hell and High Water again stars Widmark as a cynic in a cold war climate. Here he plays ex-submarine captain turned mercenary Adam Jones, who's hired by a privately financed international group to transport two of their number – French nuclear scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) and his beautiful assistant Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) – to an Alaskan island to investigate possible communist evil dealings.

You don't have to be too sharp-eyed to spot the signs that this is more adventure yarn than political thriller, the most obvious being Miss Gerard herself. Not only is she devilishly good looking, she's smart as a button, can fluently speak and read every language she encounters and is completely committed to her cause. None of which stops Jones's hand-picked crew from falling over themselves to impress her, or Jones himself from snogging her when the going gets tough.

Hell and High Water retreads some ground from Fuller's 1951 Fixed Bayonets! in the moral awakening of its central character, but the politics that were largely irrelevant to the earlier film are brought more bluntly to the fore here. From a modern perspective, the reading seems clear, with the well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual multi-national group being representative of the United Nations – or at least a common American view of it – a body that investigates but even in the face of international catastrophe refuses to take military action, something that is left to the bullish American naval commander to initiate. The final act could even be read as a shout for the UN and apolitical Americans to wake up and get with the programme, to realise that the Reds are out there and that they're plotting against us and that the free world needs to get off it's ass and damned well do something to stop them. All of which comes across as both simplistic and a little crude, not helped by a music score that hits heroic heights worthy of John Phillip Sousa, giving a couple of scenes an unfortunate twinge of Doc Savage parody.

Where the film does score is in the character detail and the handling of specific scenes, a highlight being the stand-off with a Chinese sub in a waiting game that gradually robs the crew of air, a tense and memorable sequence with a somewhat unlikely conclusion. The crew camaraderie is a typical Fuller strong point and he appears to delight in their multiculturalism, with subtitle-free exchanges held in a number of languages and a self-sacrificing Chinese crew member included to help paint the enemy in ideological rather than racial colours.

The action is inevitably well handled, with a vigorous land-based gun battle in which the bullet traces are visible, and a striking image of crew members paddling through a sea of fire, and there are a couple of tough character moments that remind you just who is in the director's chair. But despite these genuine pleasures, Hell and High Water can't help but feel like a lesser early Fuller work whose cheerful wandering down the Boy's Own Adventure path detracts from its both credibility and excitement value. Nontheless, inconsistent and intermittent though the high points may be, there are just enough to fire the interest of Fuller devotees, while undemanding war movie fans, particularly those with a thing for submarine adventures, should find plenty here to keep them happy.

sound and vision

Shot in CinemaScope, as the accompanying trailer repeatedly reminds you, the aspect ratio is an accurate 2.55:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced. The print and transfer quality are generally good, although there is some brightness flickering in places and the black levels take on a blue tinge in some of the darker scenes. Largely dust and damage free, the transfer is sharp and the contrast in the brighter scenes is very good.

The stereo 2.0 track has clear separation and is generally very serviceable, although a slight hiss can be detected behind the dialogue on the quieter scenes, something that is likely down to the original sound recording (it cuts of immediately at the conclusion of each line). What is missing here is the original 4-track stereo soundtrack, which is included on Fox's US DVD release.

extra features

Trailer (2:23)
If you need any reminding that Hell and High Water was shot in CinemaScope then tune in here and you'll have it yelled at you repeatedly by the film trailer equivalent of an American market barker. It is, he assures us, "the modern miracle you can see without special glasses!" How about that!


A Sam Fuller version of a crowd-pleaser, Hell and High Water nonetheless has just enough memorable Fuller detail to make it one for the collection if you're a fan. Optimum's UK disc loses out to Fox's US release on soundtrack options and extra features, but otherwise showcases the film rather well.

Hell and High Water

USA 1954
99 mins
Samuel Fuller
Richard Widmark
Bella Darvi
Victor Francen
Cameron Mitchell
Gene Evans

DVD details
region 2
2.55:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
English / French
subtitles .

release date
3 September 2007
review posted
2 September 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews