Stars: Robert Montgomery, Walter Huston, Madge Evans, Jimmy Durante, Eugene Pallette and Robert Young
Of all the classic films I've watched lately, Hell Below would appear to be the most unashamedly schizophrenic. Produced in collaboration with the US Navy and dedicated to the men who serve in its submarines, it's at once a war movie, a romance, a drama, an action picture, a comedy and even, most surprisingly for 1933, an effects film. Mostly based around Taranto in Italy, an allied naval base in the Mediterranean, in 1918, we discover a barrage of rear projection and a wealth of model shots the moment we get there. When an enemy air raid attacks the town, we're treated to some strange but somehow intriguing effects to accompany the damage to buildings, somewhat like tar oozing down the camera to signify light loss. As this is a precode, there's little hesitation in showing us people killed or wounded and the blood effects are notably ahead of their time, bullets making suitably bloody wounds and survivors having missing limbs.
Given how much the film scoots around, it's hard to decide what to focus on. The tone keeps on changing, and while that may be appropriate for wartime it's difficult for the viewer to keep up with the intentions of the filmmakers. Perhaps they're trying to tell us that while war is hell, and we should never forget that, it has its light moments too, even if we have to search for them, ever conscious that the dark side is always waiting to reassert itself when we least want it to. Certainly there's never a dull moment and the tension is capably held, however much the rear projection work reminds us how real this isn't. As befits a precode, it doesn't attempt to sugar coat a nasty reality, if anything relishing in throwing some really tough choices at its characters and lingering on the decisions they make. It reinforces that while there's often a right answer, it still may not be a good one. Choose well or choose badly, there are still ramifications.
Playing the lead, Lt Thomas Knowlton, is Robert Montgomery, who shows how he got credited above someone as talented as Walter Huston when he changes tone on the back of a dime. He has to do this often and he does it admirably. He's a hero and a villain all at once, a rogue and a sincere romantic lead, a selfish fool and a generous saviour. The best example of this comes at a street carnival, to which he whisks his commander's daughter, blatantly aiming to seduce this married woman. Caught halfway up a ferris wheel when an air raid arrives, he springs to action and saves the day. Once he has her to safety, they return to the frivolity of life until we realise that they're now at his place and the kiss he steals is very real. It must be difficult for an actor to transform from light hearted to serious to light hearted to serious without losing depth, but Montgomery manages it magnificently here and he rides a rollercoaster of an ethical story arc.
The conflict between Toler and Knowlton is an interesting one. It runs consistently throughout the story, but our perception of it changes over time. Initially Knowlton is the human face and Toler is the by the book stickler for detail, but gradually we see that our judgement was unfair. Toler is human too, but with enough experience to be able to see the big picture and frame his decisions accordingly. Knowlton has nowhere near the experience so his human decisionmaking is flawed and dangerous. Watch the death scene of Seaman Jenks once and you won't forget just how flawed. Of course, that makes Knowlton a character to watch and Toler one to respect. Once we learn enough to get past first impressions, we'd want to serve under Toler but go out on the town with Knowlton. What's so surprising about this conflict is that it never descends to the level of good guy/bad guy, remaining admirably and steadfastly in shades of grey.
Initially Knowlton has a sidekick, Lt Brick Walters, played by Robert Young and until I saw them share scene after scene I hadn't realised how much Roberts Montgomery and Young look alike. They bounce off each other capably too. On their first night of leave, both are ordered to a dance tasked with entertaining the wives of the high brass and both fall for Joan Standish, in the lovely form of Madge Evans. Knowlton wins out and prompts the romantic subplot of this film, if you can use that term when she's married to a serviceman injured in the line of duty who can't walk. The romance is as much a prop to build the character of Lt Knowlton as an actual romance, but it's there and Evans does a fair job. More watchable are the double act of Eugene Pallette and Jimmy Durante (yes, you read that right), one which is joyous from its first appearance and only becomes more so with time, all the way to a fight with a kangaroo (yes, you read that right too).
It's this inconsistency that stands out most. This film is very good at getting us to invest interest in a scene only to steal it away from under us. As Knowlton romances Joan, off he's called to the boat. As he's about to get information out of the captain, we're thrust into a battle. And on we go: one minute booming guns, the next chirping birds; one minute we're at an illegal fight, the next a convalescent home. There's frequently romance and heartache in the very same scenes. This inconsistency of tone makes the film very choppy and that's backed up by some abrasive cuts between scenes. That may be less the fault of the film and more its preservation, but there is a considerable difference of opinion in how long the picture even runs. Contemporary reviews reported variance between 78 and 155 minutes, which is a pretty serious difference. The version I watched was 101 minutes long. I wonder what was chopped out.
What this leaves is a film that deserves vast amounts of praise in its details but less as a picture. The detail work holds up remarkably well and feels very right. We're drawn to the conflict, which is always believable and never polarised: there are no good guys and bad guys here, merely real guys making good or bad decisions under the stress of war. The Germans speak German and are only the obvious enemy, the real enemy being within bad decisions. The casting is clever, down to the convalescent home scene being populated by actors with missing limbs. There's attention to historical detail: when the story calls for the scuttling of a World War I destroyer, they actually scuttle a World War I destroyer, the USS Moody, which was being decommissioned at the time. Even the use of the ship's cat is subtle and appropriate. And yet as a whole, it doesn't hold up as well as it's hard to even see this as one film. It's half a dozen pictures all at once, maybe more.