December 29, 2010

"That's a face?"

The Atomic Submarine (1960)

After the Soviet Union's launch of the first orbiting satellite Sputnik in late 1957, the U.S. had a sort of collective nervous breakdown over the nation's ability to compete in the all-important area of technology, and especially military technology. Many darkly predicted that before long, the Soviets would be lobbing atomic bombs at us from space. Bomb shelters and duck-and-cover exercises at schools became all the rage. One bright spot in the midst of the doom and gloom in 1958 was the first successful submerged voyage across the North Pole by the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571). All but forgotten now, the Nautilus' exploits were big, welcome news to worried Americans, boosting faith in the country's technological future at a time when it seemed all of our space rockets were exploding on their launch pads.

Naturally, the movie industry zealously capitalized on the headlines, turning America's worries into celluloid entertainments featuring atomic mutations, threats from outer space, and, in honor of an American first, atomic submarines. Disney launched the big-budget 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, around the same time that the U.S. Navy launched their nuclear-powered version of Jules Verne's Nautilus. Several years later, the real-life Nautilus' record-breaking voyages inspired such films as 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the subject of this post, The Atomic Submarine (1960).

Atomic Submarine is set in a not-too-distant future (not too distant from 1960, that is), where nuclear-powered military, scientific, and commercial subs and ships routinely transit the world's oceans, and in particular take convenient short cuts under the polar ice cap. When dozens of these vessels turn up missing or mysteriously destroyed, the military brass summons top scientists and the crew of America's premier atomic sub, the Tigershark, to investigate. The call to duty tears Lt. Commander Richard "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz) away from his pursuit of a shapely peroxide blonde, which does not make him very happy (more on the Lt. Commander's, and the actor's, unhappiness later).

The slowest parts of the movie involve the Tigershark's search for a mysterious underwater craft near the North Pole that may be responsible for the mischief, with lots of stock footage and shots of maps with dotted lines tracing the sub's routes, and a portentous narrator solemnly describing the action (or lack of it). Things don't pick up until the crew and the scientists stumble onto a pattern behind the mysterious craft's appearances and subsequent maritime disasters-- a pattern that traces a circle around the North Pole. (Shades of the real-life Nautilus!) They race to the next point where the pattern suggests the unearthly visitor should be, and sure enough, encounter a submerged saucer that they dub "Cyclops" (for the single eye-like light in the middle of its dome).

What Atomic Submarine lacks in budget ($135,000), it makes up for (somewhat) in imagination. Sci-fi flicks of the time were full of needle-nosed spaceships and flying saucers, but this is the only one that I can think of to feature an Unidentified Submerged Object (USO) -- and to top it off, the USO turns out to be a living organism as well!  When the Tigershark's torpedoes fail to do the trick, the Commander (Dick Foran) rams the Cyclops, but can't extricate his sub, and the two sink to the bottom of the icy depths.

The intrepid crew figures out a way to puncture the Cyclops' "eye," providing a way into the craft. But, much to hard-charging Lt. Cmdr. Holloway's chagrin, the only person qualified to steer an experimental diving bell into the eye of the Cyclops is civilian scientist and (gasp!) pacifist Carl Neilson, Jr. (Brett Halsey), son of Holloway's mentor. Holloway mercilessly chides the earnest and idealistic Neilson about his naive views on peace and disarmament. At this point, the film seems more like crude cold war propaganda than entertainment. 

Off camera, relations between the two actors weren't much better. In a DVD extra interview, Halsey described Franz as cold and aloof. Halsey speculated that Franz thought that the low-budget production was beneath him. Similarly, producer Alex Gordon found Franz "neurotic," and was irritated that Franz insisted on seeing his rushes-- unusual for a modest production on a tight schedule (The Astounding B Monster Book, Dinoship, 2005)

Pacifist or not, Neilson/Halsey performs his job like a trooper, enabling Holloway to lead a crew aboard the Cyclops to see if they can cut the Tigershark loose from the alien ship. The Navy frogmen assigned to the task of freeing the Tigershark note that the area seems more like the ruptured flesh of a gigantic animal than a torn metal hull. Holloway and one of the frogmen hear a disembodied voice that their skeptical companions for some reason can't hear. Like so many extras in sci-fi thrillers, the frogmen work hard to save the day, and get dispatched in grisly ways for their efforts.

At one and the same time, Atomic Submarine reveals its stark low budget, yet manages visuals that had me hiding my eyes as a kid, and stayed with me long after. The Cyclops' interior is a simple sound stage with a couple of ramps, lit in stark black and white. With most of the unearthly ship in total blackness, and disembodied voices calling to select Tigershark crew members, the scene is simply and eerily effective. The ways in which the hapless frogmen meet their demise are particularly gruesome for a movie of this era (if you're curious, see the clip below).

The climactic meeting between the Cyclops' guiding intelligence and Holloway is also quite effective, considering the shoestring effects budget. The creature was an elaborate sock puppet built up around effects man Irving Block's arm, with rubber tentacles around the base manipulated by wires. The whole sequence aboard the Cyclops submersible spacecraft is so tight and effective, that it almost seems part of another, more expensive and sophisticated production. Needless to say, Earth is saved in typical B fashion by well-placed shots-- the first, a shot from Holloway's pistol into the gaping eye of the Cyclops creature, and the coup de grace: one of Tigershark's torpedoes quickly reconfigured as an anti-ballistic missile to intercept the fleeing alien ship in mid-air.

Another reason Atomic Submarine stands out from similar B pictures of the day is its veteran cast. Arthur Franz may have had good reason to be grumpy about being in this shoestringer. By 1960, he already had a long string of leads in B movies, secondary parts in bigger budget movies, and TV roles behind him. Early in his career, he gained notice for his portrayal of a mentally unstable war veteran who snaps and begins shooting women with a high-powered rifle (The Sniper, 1952). While other actors parlayed such noticeable roles into fame and A-list careers, Franz never broke out of the B-list and TV doldrums.

The presence of veterans Dick Foran (as the Tigershark's commander) and Tom Conway (as a member of the scientific team) adds to the fun. Foran is 50 years young in Submarine, and instantly recognizable to fans of old Universal programmers like The Mummy's Hand (1940) and Horror Island (1941) -- not to mention countless westerns. Conway, debonair brother of equally debonair George Sanders, went from genre picture highs like Val Lewton's Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), to lows like Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Voodoo Woman (1957). He made only a couple more films and some TV after Atomic Submarine.

Bill Warren, in his monumental and highly entertaining compilation Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland), pithily sizes up The Atomic Submarine:
[I]t has a certain odd likability that makes it a more watchable film than it has any right to be. Despite a shortage of action, and especially lame direction by veteran Spencer Gordon Bennet, the film is relatively brisk, and the acting by a crew of old (and young) pros is considerably above average for a low-budget film, although the script by Orville H. Hampton is so full of clunker lines and wildly wrong character reactions as to be frequently hilarious.
Unintentionally hilarious or not, how can you not like a movie with lines like these?
Cyclops creature: At last Commander, we meet as your people say... face to face!
Lt. Cmdr. Holloway: That's a face?
The Atomic Submarine is available for immediate free online viewing at Internet Archive.

Unlucky Tigershark crew members have a bad day aboard the alien craft:

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