The Atomic Submarine (1959) **Ĺ
Iíve been puzzling over this since I first heard about itó why on Earth is there a Criterion Collection edition of The Atomic Submarine? Who was asking for the chance to drop $40 on a deluxe presentation of this particular late-50ís sci-fi cheapie? Sure, it wouldnít be the first time Criterion had taken a break from The Classics, and their sister label, Eclipse, is more or less expressly dedicated to producing film-buff editions of oddball, disreputable obscurities. Thereís generally a pretty obvious motive, though, behind the flagship Criterion brandís occasional descents into the gutter. Sometimes thereís just a ton of money to be made, enough to create a profitability safety net for a whole slate of niche-market releases. Or it could be a question of internal company politics, with some member of the firmís board of directors pushing hard on behalf of a favorite inauspicious schlock-opera. Both of those considerations factored into the Criterion release of Armageddon, for example, with Michael Bay using his seat on the board to get his putrid asteroid flick a prestige presentation that it would never have received from anybody on its own merits. Other counterintuitive Criterions found their way into the catalogue thanks to strong and persistent fan cults, like Repo Man, Equinox, and Fiend Without a Face. But The Atomic Submarine isnít just an extremely minor film of no cultural consequence; it doesnít even have a cult following of any size, so far as Iíve noticed. So what, then, was the draw? Now that Iíve seen The Atomic Submarine, Iím inclined to believe it earned its place simply by being interesting to an extent hugely disproportionate with its overall quality or ambition. Like The Lost Missile, itís a mediocre film that blows the formula for its genre wide open.
The setting is Earth in an undated but plainly near future. Compact nuclear reactors have become cheap and reliable enough to serve as the preferred power source for commercial shipping. Moreover, the new reactors have made it possible to link the Old World and the New by means of submarine ocean liners traversing the pole beneath the vast northern icecapó and already we see hints of the singular vision behind this seemingly insignificant picture. It goes unsaid in the stage-setting voiceover narration, but think for a moment about what it would take for trans-polar submarine travel to become commercially viable. I donít mean the technical prerequisites, although those would certainly be challenging enough. Consider instead the necessary social and political developments. For a trip beneath the Arctic ice to make any sense, there would have to be demand for travel between, say, Juneau and Arkhangelsk. In other words, this is the only sci-fi movie of its era that Iím aware of to assume a peaceful end to the Cold War as part of its back-story! In any case, the Arctic sea lanes are not without their hazards even now, and itís shaping up to be a freakishly bad year for shipwrecks under the roof of the world. When the USAS Sturgeon, greatest of the trans-polar liners, is lost with all hands, the authorities are finally forced to accept that something out of the ordinary is going on.
Heading up the US Navyís efforts to get to the bottom of things is Admiral Terhune (Selmer Jackson, from Shock and The Ape). Heís ordered the worldís most advanced combat sub, the USS Tiger Shark, converted on an emergency basis for the mission to investigate the disasters under the ice. Thatís because the foremost experts in the relevant fieldsó Dr. Clifford Kent (The Man Who Turned to Stoneís Victor Varconi) and Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway, from Bride of the Gorilla and 12 to the Moon)ó believe that no known natural phenomenon can adequately account for them. Whateverís sinking those subs is almost certainly purposeful, intelligent, and hostile. The Tiger Shark will trade most of its normal weaponry for super-sophisticated sensors, a new underwater-to-air missile system, and a deployment rig for the Lungfish, an experimental deep-diving submersible capable of negotiating the most inaccessible of ocean trenches. All that comes as something of a shock to the Tiger Sharkís captain, Commander Dan Wendover (Dick Foran, of The Mummyís Hand and The House of the Seven Gables). Itíll come as an even bigger shock to Wendoverís crew, who are to be kept in the dark about why their between-tours leave has been cut short until after the sub is well underway for the Arctic.
Itís immediately obvious to everyone, though, that this will be no routine patrol. For one thing, thereís all the unfamiliar equipment, and for another, there are the two civilian scientists hanging around the bridge all the time. Then there are the frogmen, Carney (The Spiral Staircaseís Richard Tyler) and Powell (Kenneth Becker). Nobody, Carney and Powell included, ever heard of Navy frogmen serving aboard a combat sub before. And finally, thereís the Lungfish and its designer, Dr. Carl Neilson Jr. (Brett Halsey, from Revenge of the Creature and Twice-Told Tales). Neilson is a well-known and outspoken pacifist, so itís peculiar indeed to see him billeted aboard a warship.
Neilsonís presence, unsurprisingly, is the biggest source of interpersonal friction aboard the Tiger Shark during the two months in which it fruitlessly combs the Arctic Ocean for nobody even knows what. Relations are especially strained between the inventor and Tiger Shark executive officer Lieutenant Commander Richard ďReefĒ Holloway (Arthur Franz, of Flight to Mars and Invaders from Mars). Holloway had served under Carl Neilson Sr., a submarine skipper of nigh-legendary status, and he takes the younger Neilsonís views on the military as a personal insult, both to himself and to the old man. Tensions between Holloway and Neilson have reached the point where nothing short of violence or sodomy will resolve them by the time the Tiger Shark at last finds what itís looking for.
The subís quarry turns out to be an amphibious flying saucer, which Sir Ian dubs ďCyclopsĒ due to the one-eyed appearance of what he takes to be its conning tower. It sinks ships by means of titanic electrical discharges, and as Wendover and his crew will learn soon enough, it can protect itself from projectile attack by extruding a substance that turns the seawater surrounding its hull to jelly. Itís much faster than the Tiger Shark, too, even though the latterís atomic engines enable it to cruise indefinitely at over 30 knots. Cyclops does appear to have one weakness, however. Each time it strikes, it invariably withdraws to the Earthís magnetic pole. Sir Ian and Dr. Kent deduce that the alien vessel must be drawing power from the planetís magnetic field, and if theyíre right, Wendover could ambush Cyclops by heading it off at the pole after its next attack. With luck, they might even catch it too weak to fire its deadly electrical weapon.
The plan works insofar as Wendover and his crew are able to intercept Cyclops with its power at a low ebb, but its defensive Jell-o renders it impervious to torpedoesó even the nuclear-tipped variety carried by the Tiger Shark. Wendover is forced to gamble that thereís a limit to how dense Cyclops can make the water around its hull; he orders helmsman Lieutenant David Milburn (Paul Dubrov, from Voodoo Woman and Shock Corridor) to ram the saucer at full speed. Even that desperate measure produces but conspicuously partial success. The Tiger Sharkís reinforced bow punches through the enemyís hull, alright, but now the two antagonists are stuck fast to each other at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. Dr. Neilson will have to ferry a boarding party to Cyclops aboard the Lungfish in the hope of freeing the subís bow from its entanglement. That means he and Holloway will have to put aside their enmity long enough for Carney and Powell to do their work. But more importantly, it also means the boarding party will have to confront the saucerís controllers face to face.
The Atomic Submarine spends far too much of its time meandering about without apparent purpose. The starkest example is a scene early on in which Holloway receives his orders to return to Bremerton Naval Base in the midst of carousing with his latest platinum-blonde conquest (Joi Lansing, from Hillbillys in a Haunted House and Queen of Outer Space). This scene serves absolutely no story function, and is of paltry value even as gratuitous titillation. The only reason itís here is because producer Alex Gordon owed Lansingís agent a favor, and wasnít about to pass up a chance to do one for Frank Sinatra. Lansing was Sinatraís girlfriend at the time, and he was putting the full weight of his connections behind her career as the poor manís Mamie Van Doren. The Atomic Submarine fortunately never gets quite that utterly pointless again, but it does convey far too emphatically the seeming futility of the Tiger Sharkís two-month pursuit of Cyclops. Part of the problem is that characteristic 50ís sci-fi allergy to atmosphere or stylization, insisting that modernity and futurism must invariably look like a wartime newsreel. When thereís nothing going on but scene after scene of men sitting around a table complaining about their inability to accomplish anything, that kind of flat, unengaged, unengaging cinematography is simply deadly.
Sticking to the newsreel look does pay off a little at the climax, though, by emphasizing the difference between standard operating procedure and the look of things aboard the alien ship. On the inside, Cyclops embodies the kind of minimalist surrealism that ďThe Outer LimitsĒ used so strikingly to portray its extraterrestrial and extra-dimensional environments a few years later. Titanic objects of no recognizable function hang suspended in an infinite void of blackness, radiating out from a glowing, smeary sphere like a miniature gas giant. Thereís no sign of a crew except within that mysterious sphere, and the solitary pilotó a bubbling, fungoid, conical mass of tentacles topped by a single, towering eyestalkó is one of the most alien aliens of the 1950ís. Gordon tried to get the latter cut from the film when he saw the little rubber hand puppet devised by special effects guys Irving Block and Jack Rabin, but fortunately cooler heads (or at least heads better versed in the practicalities of trick cinematography) prevailed.
The rest of The Atomic Submarineís appeal may not be readily visible to those without expertise in 50ís science fiction, because the main point is that this movie does things differently. While everybody else was running endless variations on the formulas behind The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the makers of The Atomic Submarine began instead with a popular war-movie premise, putting a science fiction spin on Gordonís recent hit, Submarine Seahawk. The mere absence of a Bronson Canyon shooting location is itself a breath of fresh air, and the frequent shots of the Tiger Shark navigating the fissures on the underside of the polar icecap literally invert the standard imagery of spacecraft hovering above alien worlds. Equally noteworthy is the relatively even match between the Tiger Shark and Cyclops. The invader has the advantage, certainly, but no unprecedented super-weapon is necessary to defeat it. And as Iíve already mentioned, thereís the nifty background implication of normalized relations between the West and the USSR, in a context that obviously falls short of world peace. Again, all that may escape the notice of those for whom Eisenhower-era sci-fi isnít a regular part of their cinematic diet, but The Atomic Submarine offers enough to be worth the connoisseurís while despite its significant shortcomings.