War-Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea (1965) ***

Hollywood careers rarely end in a blaze of cinematic glory. Sudden death ensured Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (The Misfits, 1961) and Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) went out with a bang but more likely a  career is just going to tail off and end with this kind of whimper. Director Jacques Tourneur, in any case, was long past a heyday that saw him set the horror genre agog with Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).

If that wasn’t enough to solidify his credentials he dipped into another genre, the nascent film noir, and helmed gems like Experiment Perilous (1944) with Hedy Lamarr and Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum. Thereafter came swashbucklers The Flame and the Arrow (1950) headlining Burt Lancaster and Anne of the Indies (1951) plus crime drama Appointment in Honduras (1953) with the ever-dependable Glenn Ford and Joel McCrea western Wichita (1955). Then, miraculously, it was back to horror with Night of the Demon (1957) and the late flurry of The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

You can tell where I’m going with all this. War-Gods of the Deep has nothing on any of these pictures. The backstory is much more interesting than the actual film.

Basically, this is one of those pictures where an unlikely pair, American Ben Harris (Tab Harris) and eccentric Brit Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) get themselves into an unlikely situation and have to get themselves out of it.

Set in the smugglers’ paradise of the British Cornish coast around the turn of the last century, on a hotel on top of a cliff, the duo need to track down another American, Jill (Susan Hart), who has disappeared down a plughole, sorry mini-whirlpool. This leads to a legendary underwater city where smugglers led by Sir Hugh (Vincent Price) have found the secret of eternal life, a paradise now endangered by tremors from a nearby volcano.

The Italians didn’t fancy the two titles on offer so came up with their own
by purloining the Jules Verne classic.

He sent his enslaved Gill-Men to kidnap Jill in the erroneous belief that she is his dead wife. Bored out of their minds with listening to Sir Hugh prattling on endlessly about how the underwater city came into being and how important he is to the whole affair and what imminent dangers the inhabitants now face, and of course faced with their own imminent demise as sacrificial victims, the pair decide to scoot, having found a willing accomplice.

There’s a chase and whatever, and some undersea adventure, but there’s not much to it.

However, what you do get when you add someone like Tourneur – and to that extent Vincent Price and his ominous tones – to this listless mix is atmosphere. Tourneur can inject eeriness almost just by switching on a camera, despite a very stage-bound picture, and he knows how to add a music score that tremendously aids his enterprise. The opening section by the shore and in the hotel adds the necessary element of mystery to make the whole idea float.

There clearly wasn’t enough of a budget for the Gill-Men to appear as anything but peripheral figures which actually might have helped since, the state of special effects in that time might have made them laughable rather than distantly disturbing.

The best you can say is that Tourneur made the best of a bad job. Vincent Price (Diary of a Madman, 1963) only has to turn up to inject an element of danger. Tab Hunter (Ride the Wild Surf, 1963) and Susan Hart (Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, 1965) needn’t have bothered turning up for all they bring to the party. And David Tomlinson (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971)  brings far too much, saddled with a pet comic chicken for no apparent reason except to extract a few laughs.

AIP, having made its name in the horror department by raiding the portfolio of Edgar Allan Poe, turned up this source material deep in that vault. But the only connection to Poe is the original idea –  which was not that original, other poets having plumbed those depths prior –  and that appears only in occasional desultory recitations of the poem. But, as a marketing tool, hey, Edgar Allan Poe, that’ll scare their socks off!

So, you are warned, but also you can’t help but warm to this final movie by one of the Hollywood greats as he tries to put a sheen on something that in other hands would have sunk like a stone.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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