Categories
Action/Adventure British Science Fiction / Fantasy

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Movie Eyeing a Fall Start

In my recommendation of Treasure Island, I described how and why Disney started making live-action family films after the war. One of the studio’s greatest films of this period is a dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

James Mason as Capt. Nemo | Leagues under the sea, Movie stars ...

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

I Walk Alone

4 Movies Starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had remarkably parallel careers. They both made their first film in 1946, quickly became huge international stars, and maintained their cinematic dominance for decades. Both were handsome, athletic men who were also intelligent enough to play parts with nuance and depth. Both ultimately broke away from the studio system to become independent producers. And last but not least, they made seven films together, the first of which is the 1948 crime melodrama I Walk Alone.

The story commences with Frankie Madison (Lancaster) getting out of the joint after a 14 year stretch. He was arrested for bootlegging with Noll “Dink” Taylor (Douglas), but Taylor eluded the cops, never did any hard time and indeed never even bothered to visit Frankie in prison. Frankie’s old friend Dave (Wendell Corey, in a quietly effective performance), who has stayed true to him, is under Dink’s thumb as the bookkeeper of his swanky nightclub. Frankie feels entitled to half of the club, but Dink isn’t feeling generous. Dink sends his moll, a singer in the club (Lizabeth Scott) to sweet-talk Frankie; he’s lost interest in her anyway because he wants to marry a blue blood (a sultry and perfectly bitchy Kristine Miller) who will secure his place among the posh people.

The emotional power of the film comes from the conflict between Frankie and Dink. Lancaster’s Frankie is a pacing, rough cut ex-con who would like nothing better than to slug it out. Douglas’ Dink is all suaveness and reassurance, an oleaginous modern businessman who claims to have left the world of guns and fists. This contrast produces the best scene in the movie, in which Lancaster shows up with some thugs to take over the club by force, and Douglas humiliates him by explaining that because of multiple holding companies and escrow agreements, there is nothing to take over (without a vote of the board and amendment of the by laws of course). As Dink himself says, Frankie is a dinosaur, unable to cope with the realities of the modern world. But Dink still fears him enough to commit a terrible crime and frame his former pal as the culprit.

There are some flaws in this film. It was Byron Haskin’s first directorial outing, and he doesn’t seem in full control of the material. He got much better later, for example in another of my recommendations, Treasure Island. This isn’t Lizabeth Scott’s best work either. She seems one-note off in I Walk Alone, for a reason I cannot guess (Bad direction from Haskin, maybe). Charles Schnee was a great script writer (The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas, being one of his gems). His script here includes some pungent dialogue but the story drags at times, particularly in the second half. But no matter what slow spots intrude on the viewer’s enjoyment, the film always roars back to life as soon as the two lions of post-war cinema are tussling on the screen again.

As a note on the actors, this was the fourth film for both men and they apparently spent little time with each other off-screen. Their friendship/rivalry was to blossom much later during the making of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. About 10 years ago, I had the good fortune to hear from Douglas’ own lips that the rivalry was largely a studio and trade press invention, when in reality they had always been good friends. But who knows or cares? Whatever their personal relationship was like off screen, they were a terrific duo onscreen.