The Enemy Below
The Enemy Below (1957) is a war movie that has only improved with age, and it started out with an excellent reputation. The direction by Dick Powell is about as perfect as has ever been seen in a World War II thriller of this kind. It's not an epic about D-day or some renowned battle, but a story of one relatively small action -- no less ferocious or deadly -- between an American destroyer escort and a German U-boat. What made it special, apart from the excellent performances all around and the fine special effects by L.B. Abbott, was its script by Wendell Mayes, which brought out the human element on both sides, an aspect of war drama that was new to American movie audiences in 1957. The DVD release was announced for the spring of 2003, but the disc didn't actually make it into stores until May 2004, almost a year late. The reason for the delay is anyone's guess -- what we have here, however, is nicely programmed. This film actually should have been part of Fox's Studio Classics series, because it is that good -- David Hedison and Theodore Bikel are still around, among the movie's cast members, and could have been at the core of a commentary track with a good war movie scholar. But as it is, there's a lot to watch beyond the movie itself. A Fox Movietone newsreel tells about the combat situation in the Atlantic early in the war and the German attack on southern Norway, made up of footage passed by censors on both sides. There's a very brief account of a U-boat captured by a British sea-plane and a much longer look at the German U-boat pens in Lorient, France, made up of footage captured from the Germans, and shots of Allied bombers blasting those same pens. As for the movie itself, it looks gorgeous -- better here than in any prior home-video presentation, with deeper color and sharper detail than was seen on the old letterboxed laserdisc. This release keeps the proper Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and that is essential to viewing this movie properly; apart from the fact that this is a film about ships at sea -- one of the most horizontal subjects there is -- Powell and cinematographer Harold Rosson use every part of the widescreen frame, so that there's hardly a shot in which there's not useful picture/plot information spread across the screen. One of the wonderful bonuses of the DVD format, as opposed to laserdisc, is the absence of bleeds in the bright lights -- even the red lamps aboard the sub show a razor-sharp glow, and no fuzziness. The source material is in superb shape, with even the darkest shots aboard the U-boat offering usable visual information. The audio is set at a low volume but it is very clean and boosts up nicely on speakers without distortion, bringing out aspects of the highly nuanced acting -- Robert Mitchum's style is built on the notion of less-is-more, so his every pause is worth taking in, and Curt Jurgens is just as good in a slightly different manner. Additionally, there is an unexpectedly good action score by Leigh Harline. The 97-minute movie has been given a very generous 28 chapters that are well chosen and labeled. In addition to the English-language stereo/4.0 surround track, there are mono French and Spanish audio tracks available and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The disc opens automatically to a multi-layered menu that's very easy to maneuver around and advances automatically as one screens the trailers (to this and a handful of other Fox war movies from the 1940s through the 1960s) and newsreels.