Hell and High Water (1954 film)

Hell and High Water is a 1954 Technicolor Cold War drama film from 20th Century Fox, starring Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, and Victor Francen. The film, directed by Samuel Fuller, was made to showcase CinemaScope being used in the confined sets of a submarine (not to be confused with the 1933 film by the same name).

Hell and High Water
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySamuel Fuller
Produced byRaymond A. Klune
Written byDavid Hempstead
Screenplay byJesse L. Lasky, Jr.
Samuel Fuller
StarringRichard Widmark
Bella Darvi
Victor Francen
Music byAlfred Newman
CinematographyJoseph MacDonald
Edited byJames B. Clark
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
February 1, 1954
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,700,000[2][3]

Before the credits, an off-screen voice-over narrates:

In the summer of 1953, it was announced that an atomic bomb of foreign origin had been exploded somewhere outside of the United States. Shortly thereafter it was indicated that this atomic reaction, according to scientific reports, originated in a remote area in North Pacific waters, somewhere between the northern tip of the Japanese Islands and the Arctic Circle. This is the story of that explosion.


In 1953, renowned French scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) goes missing. The authorities believe that he and four other scientists defected behind the Iron Curtain.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Navy USS Bowfin (SS-287) submarine commander Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) arrives in Tokyo after receiving a mysterious package containing $5,000. Jones meets Professor Montel and his colleagues, a group of scientists, businessmen, and statesmen who suspect the Communist Chinese are building a secret atomic base on an island somewhere north of Japan. They must have proof, so Montel offers Jones another $45,000 if he will command an old World War II-era Japanese submarine being overhauled and follow the Communist Chinese freighter Kiang Ching, which has been making suspicious deliveries in that area. Jones reluctantly agrees, providing that the submarine is armed, and that he is also allowed to hire some of his former navy shipmates.

The day before Jones is to conduct a test dive, news arrives that the Kiang Ching has sailed. Despite Jones's protests that the submarine's torpedo tubes have not been inspected and tested yet, and they are therefore too dangerous to use, there is no choice but to leave port and pursue the freighter. When Montel boards with his assistant, the scientist Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), the superstitious crewmen are upset, believing that a women on board is bad luck, but Montel insists that she come along.

On the voyage, they are detected by a Red Chinese submarine. The Chinese are not fooled by their explanation that they are on a simple scientific expedition and fire torpedoes at them without warning. Unable to fire back with his own untested torpedo tubes, Jones dives the boat to the sea bottom, hoping to hide there; the Red Chinese follow. After several tense hours of waiting each other out, Jones finally decides to surface. When the other submarine does the same, Jones rams and sinks it.

Jones wants to turn back, but Montel points out that their contract specifies that he won't be paid unless Montel is satisfied. They continue to follow the Kiang Ching to an island. Jones and Montel land to investigate, but Montel is disappointed by the low radioactivity levels he detects. After a firefight with Red Chinese soldiers, the patrol returns to the submarine with a captive. They learn the location of another island from the prisoner, a pilot named Ho-Sin.

During a storm en route, Montel is injured. Because he is too hurt to go ashore, Montel insists Jones take Denise in his place; she is the only other person qualified to gather and interpret the required data. Denise detects an extremely high level of radioactivity and is forced to shoot and kill a Chinese soldier who stumbles upon her. Back aboard the submarine, Jones is worried because he recognized an American B-29 bomber (a Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-4 copy in U.S. markings) sitting on an airstrip. Needing more information, they trick it out of Ho-Sin. They place the ship's cook Chin Lee (Wong Artarne), dressed in a Chinese uniform and beaten by Jones at Chin Lee's insistence, into the same room. Fooled, the captive reveals that the aircraft is going to drop an atomic bomb on either Korea or Manchuria the next day, with the blame placed on the United States. Chin Lee slips up and Ho-Sin beats him to death before Jones can intervene.

Jones decides to go ashore and watch for the bomber's takeoff. When he signals, the submarine will surface and try to shoot it down. Montel, however, sneaks onto the island in his place. When Jones scolds Denise for not stopping the old man, she tearfully reveals that Montel is her father.

The submarine surfaces, and the crew opens fire with every weapon aboard on the heavily laden, low flying bomber. On fire, it turns back and crashes, detonating the atomic bomb, obliterating the island. In voice-over Montel's previous observation echos as the bomb's mushroom cloud rises: "Each man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying".



Fuller agreed to direct the film after Darryl F. Zanuck agreed that he could rewrite the screenplay,[4] provided that the original screenwriters, Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Beirne Lay, approved Fuller's rewrite. Though he did not like the film, he accepted the assignment as a personal favor to Zanuck, who had defended Fuller against FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's attack on the studio over Fuller's film Pickup on South Street. Fuller discussed the CinemaScope process with Jean Negulesco and carefully studied Negulesco's How to Marry a Millionaire in which he found the New York panoramas particularly impressive. Fuller used the widescreen effectively for the opening European locations and the exciting action climax, but also demonstrated how to use it to communicate the claustrophobia experienced on board the submarine.

Fuller spent several days aboard a U.S. Navy submarine, including fifteen hours submerged. The experience led Fuller to add film sequences where Francen gets his fingers caught in a hatch, using a submarine's red lighting to enhance a love scene, and having a battle between two submarines staged much like a hunter stalking his prey.[5] When cinematographer Joseph MacDonald said there was no room on the sets for the red lighting, Fuller said that few in the audience would be familiar with the equipment inside a submarine and therefore had MacDonald place them in the audience's view.

The U.S. government, who provided the nuclear bomb explosion footage that opens the film, insisted that certain spectrum colors be eliminated from the sequence, lest it "could reveal nuclear secrets".[5]

Filming started 26 June 1953.[6]

Alfred Newman's majestic musical theme was reused from the film The Fighting Lady. Stock footage from this film also appeared in Fox's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series.

This was the feature film debut of Darryl F. Zanuck's mistress Bella Darvi, whose stage surname was a combination of Zanuck's first name and that of his wife Virginia.[7]

Charles Boyer was originally cast in the role as Professor Montel, which later went to actor Victor Francen.

Zanuck often screened the film in CinemaScope to directors who had reservations about working in the widescreen process to demonstrate why its use should not be limited to just epics.[8]


The film was a box office success in the United States and abroad, particularly Germany. Later, when filming a cameo in Steven Spielberg's 1941, Spielberg showed Fuller that he actually carried a print of Hell and High Water in the trunk of his car.[5]

Initially, France banned the film on political grounds. It also banned Soviet political films. A number of European countries were sensitive to films with political themes and refused to grant them exhibition permits, avoiding the ire of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.



  1. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p249.
  2. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p225
  3. 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955.
  4. Fuller, Samuel A Third Face 2002 Alfred A. Knopf, p.308
  5. Fuller, Samuel A Third Face 2002 Alfred A. Knopf, pp 311-312
  6. First Full CinemaScope Schedule Listed by Fox Los Angeles Times 8 June 1953: A3.
  8. Southall, James. "Hell and High Water". Movie Wave. Retrieved July 25, 2015.
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