Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, June 04, 2020


"We know less about the deep oceans than we know about the surface of the moon!"
There's never any question of getting the bends in the fun and oceanic quasi-sci-fi adventure film Around the World Under the Sea. In fact it's the one element that seems the most unscientific about this charmingly odd duck of a movie, produced by the ever-adventurous Ivan Tors and ably achieving just what it wants to do, i.e. pleasurably evoking the previous nine or so years of ocean-related TV adventure, Irwin Allen sci-fi films, and Jacques Cousteau documentaries. I say that as someone totally fine with the uncommented on presence of a macro-scoped moray eel doing the duty as the requisite giant sea monster, haphazardly bumping into the mini- (ala what kept us kids watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reruns). I wish there were more; no giant squid or octopus appear, but we do see them swimming around. And there's a deep-breathing Shirley Eaton as a consolation. Hey, that's all right, too.

Lloyd Bridges (from TV's Sea Hunt) co-stars with Brian Kelly (from TV's Flipper) as two manly divers on a mission to assemble a team of the leading oceanographers, tech gurus, oxygen mixers (Shirley Eaton), and undersea miners (dull as dishwater William Thompson) to travel the oceans deep and plant seismographic detection devices around the 'ring of fire' and other places. Their experimental yellow submarine, the Hydronaut "can circle the globe on one cartridge of nuclear fuel!" And the band begins to play (Harry Sukman conducts the breathless, whirling orchestra score). Are you down for the trip? Or would you rather slog through another week of CNN watching the world above you burn? You'd let the millions of coastal Japanese die during the next quake? 

Along the way there are rescues. The best one being early on when Bridges dives down to help his sinking buddy with no oxygen tank, and swims 100 feet or so down -doing no real good except to bang on the top of the window. I love it, as no one is perfect. The steam heat of Eaton almost crashes the sub as McCallum is busy trying to woo her and nearly collides with an undersea cliff.

Keenan Wynn co-stars as one of the breathing mixers. And I am fascinated by his bachelor pod under the sea (he lives in a giant NYC studio apartment-sized diving bell several thousand feet down). I have had dreams about just such a place; in these apocalyptic times it's looking better than ever! The only difference is that his lacks a VHS player and TV; I think I saw an LP player and a nice stack of records, and there's an ongoing chess game via shortwave.  Lloyd Bridges dives down there and tries to convince him of all the lives he'll save by helping install a chain of underwater earthquake detectors along the Pacific 'ring of fire': "I don't care - let 'em all go." Wynn fires back. "I got it made down here! I got my research, my books, my music!"

Bridges and Kelly, reminding us of a time when men looked like men. 

To provide evidence, he shows a shark hatching from its egg: "He's trying to free himself from his nourishing egg yolk! He wants to be born!" The analog is clear. Wynn doesn't want to be born, preferring to stay in his nourishing egg under the sea.  I relate to his churlish disposition; it doesn't seem quite fair to drop in and guilt trip him like some crafty Greenpeace canvasser.  So he's going to leave all his lab animals to just die in his undersea cave because some scientist wants to save Asia? To prove Wynn's misanthropy is just a lazy dodge, Bridges leaves the pod without the right oxygen mix to get back to the surface alive, banking on his old pal coming to the rescue. 

Another of my favorite crew, Eaton has that wry knowing look--both haughty and turned-on, dismissive of your interest in her yet intrigued. Steaming up the cramped ocean spaces, throwing the alpha male young buck Kelly into a state of mating season heat, and vexing the Metalunan forehead of David McCallum as the wizard at communications and computers. (Meanwhile dull as dishwater Marshall Thompson occasionally puts his arm around her, presuming she'd marry him in a minute if he asked). I'm no fan of McCallum (he's like Klaus Kinski without the froth) but I like the way the he and Keenan begin their ongoing chess game (magnetically attached to the side of the sub so as not to take up space) without a single word and weird or not he's a better option for Eaton than square apple pie face Thompson, who'd be more believable as her father, even in the 60s. (though he's only 12 years her senior). Luckily, providing handsome manly gruffness as the guy who gets Eaton into whatever bed there is onboard, Kelly beats them all by deliberately not trying. 

The reason for Kelly's gruffness is clear: once they're all submerged, Eaton's pheromones ooze off of her into the mix of sweat and salt water steam. What makes her allure so unique is her rather harsh face --she's not afraid to keep those jet black roots and big black eyebrows over her wide, cunning eyes (as she showed in the The Million Eyes of Sumuru, those eyes have a sadistic ferocity, especially with the sharp contrast of her blonde hair and jet black eyebrows; that devouring smile, those gnashing teeth! She's from a brand of mid-60s iBond girl (like Honor Blackman), with black eyeliner so thick she could be seen staring at you with a wolfish smile from a mile away. "I've caught them all," is her first line of dialogue, seen on land, after rounding up escaped guinea pigs. But by the end, it's clear who she really means is the entirety of the Hydronaut crew. "You're a lot on a man's blood pressure," admits Bridges. But he also notes she's excellent at her job and men are going to have to get used to women like her being around, i.e. it's not her fault, and she's not just here as eye candy, or a secretary. She's the leading expert in her field and we regularly see her proving it. There are a few shots of her bringing orange juice in and out of rooms on a tray, as if the filmmakers felt the need to satisfy some archaic gender typing; but we also see her injecting the men with chemicals that will help them absorb more oxygen from the limited air, and keeping an eye on her guinea pigs for signs of changing in the breathing. She's a great one for oxygen.

The climax involving a last minute extra sensor right at the foot of an underwater volcanic eruption includes lots of great, albeit unconvincing, miniatures and colors as the bright orange light of the magma creates deep blue dark shadows on the sub and its interiors, evoking Suspiria and early two-strip color films like Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, with the ship balanced on the lip of a volcano, then sliding vertically so that they're all trying to work while literally falling on top of each other.  and the last minute plan to blow the sub in half to rocket the top half straight up to the surface ensures the framing gets understandably messy--even Twister-esque--in the interiors but man the exteriors look gorgeous in this big climax, with the deep volcanic stock footage and model work casting a cool contrasting blue and orange lattice of shadows as the colors filter through the dark ocean water.

 It's not for everyone, and I'm no specific fan of underwater TV shows from the 60s, but I have warmed up on movies where the sea monster is a normal-sized predator in an aquarium battling a tiny model and there's something downright Hawksian about these professionals all working together and the slow burn romance bathed in steam.

Truth be told. Not even sure why I like this movie, its title seems designed to weld Around the World in 80 Days to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and it sure is derivative of a lot of different TV and movies like Fantastic Voyage as well. But that's all okay. One amazing element is just how little the film seems to care about the usual oceanography documentary stuff. We see the Great Barrier Reefs and so forth but only in passing. The only dolphin is one programmed to attach magnetic mines to ships.Clearly most of this was filmed on the dry dock or with miniatures in big tanks but I love that. In CGI or life-size 'reality', with endless digressions on the wonders of aquatic life, it would be a snooze (or more of a snooze than it is). Instead, it's almost Hawksian. And in these trying times, regardless of whether you think, like Wynn's salty dog, we should "let 'em all go" or be like Kelly and Nolan and "want to be born," getting far under the sea away from the dizzy situations back on land seems hard to resist. I know a lot of harried dads would love this movie with a few cocktails after their nagging wives go off to bed. Submarine movies work a special kind of magic for us air-conditioning-dependent summertime older males, and provide the ultimate metaphor for late night viewing itself, that special privatized sphere of buzzed insomniacs, when the lack of prying eyes frees you to unfurl all your hidden tentacles, and--even if it's all too dark to see except through a single glowing window--the world is yours.

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