Below the Sea really should be good. It’s got a great–somewhat startling when viewed today–opening, it’s got excellent special effects and Albert S. Rogell has some fantastic composition. But it all goes wrong.
The opening is set in 1917 on a German U-boat. It’s carrying gold through the Caribbean and gets sunk following a battle with an American ship. Why the ship’s carrying gold is never explained–not in English anyway. That startling opening is the lack of English. The whole scene on the U-boat plays in German, which makes Below the Sea very different and very unexpected. The prologue’s just great.
Then the descent begins. Frederick Vogeding–the U-boat captain who survives–teams with deep sea diver Ralph Bellamy to recover the gold. There’s a useless sequence with their first attempt to get it, which fails. What’s so strange about this part of the film is how it’s just a time waster. It’s got some impressive storm at sea special effects, but there’s no narrative value.
But it’s a lot better than what follows.
For all the great shots Rogell can compose, he can’t direct actors. Vogeding’s the only principal who turns in a good performance. Fay Wray and Bellamy are both terrible. When their romance begins, their performances only get worse. Writer Jo Swerling seems to think his characters are charming, but neither are. Swerling establishes Bellamy early on as a violent, murderous thug. Exactly the protagonist one wants to spend a movie with. Wray’s character is just annoying and poorly written; she’d be likable if Wray’s performances was any good.
The film’s moderately watchable just because of the treasure hunt aspect, with the fine underwater photography and the nice special effects sequence at the end–Bellamy, in diving suit, versus a giant octopus (to save Wray, of course)–the gravy. And Rogell never disappoints in terms of composition. He’s always framing something beautifully, but the movie just gets worse and worse.
The predictability is a real problem, but worse is the lack of interest in the film’s story. While the treasure hunt aspect is the main plot, there’s a rather interesting subplot about scientific exploration of the ocean. Maybe it isn’t interesting, maybe it only is compared to the terrible romance.
And the romance is a real problem. Wray is presented as a headstrong, independent woman–who needs the rough and tumble Bellamy to break her of that independence. The lack of sympathy the movie tries to kindle for Bellamy is kind of interesting, but not really worth any examination or consideration. Every chance the movie has to excel, it fails. The script’s poor, the leads who should be good are quite the opposite and the director doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.
It’s a disappointment to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s surprising for anything other than the bad performances from Wray and Bellamy, both of whom I expected to be good. I don’t even want to think about how badly they failed chemistry.
That German language opening, however, is real interesting.