Having watched my fair share of classic films by now, and knowing the fixtures of certain producers, I should have known what I was getting into with Underwater! (Yes, there is an exclamation point in the title.) It’s a Howard Hughes-produced feature starring Jane Russell, and for many, that should alert the audience to the lack of substance contained within. And yet, that can’t prepare you for what happens (or, more than often, doesn’t) within this film’s 99-minute runtime. It’s remarkable Warner Archive would even waste its time putting this on a lush Blu-ray, but the finished product certainly dazzles even if the feature doesn’t.
Filmed in RKO’s equivalent of CinemaScope, the weirdly titled SuperScope, Underwater! tells the story of two treasure hunters who deal with all manner of dangers, above and below the water, in order to take the haul they believe is rightfully theirs.
If you’ve seen any of these underwater treasure-hunting features, from Fathom (1967) to The Deep (1977), the same basic outline applies. It’s predominately an excuse to get the female heroine in a swimsuit for an extended period of time. And with Hughes being Hughes, you’d actually expect Jane Russell to be in a bikini more often than she is. In fact, the film’s marketing prominently plays up her, er, assets when in all actuality she’s in one-piece bathing suits throughout the whole movie. No, if anything, the problem with Underwater! is how little respect it has for Russell just as a character. But I’m jumping ahead.
We meet our hero, Johnny Grant (Richard Egan), first. Or, better yet, we hear Johnny Grant. A large swath of this movie is told in narration, probably to make up for the fact that nearly 60% of this movie is silent underwater footage. Then again, maybe hearing Richard Egan is better than seeing him act. Egan is a pretty face, his lantern-jaw making him the picture perfect depiction of masculinity for this movie. But that’s it; he brings nothing else to the table. Jane Russell conjures up chemistry with a rock but every time she’s sidling up to Egan it’s like she’s mushing her face against a plank of wood. He has more heat with Gilbert Roland’s Dominic Quesada and even that’s not exciting!
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, Gilbert Roland plays a guy named Dominic Quesada?” You bet he does! Because this movie takes place in Cuba and we’re not talking about the Cuban landscape of American travelers hanging out in pre-Castro nightclubs. Nope, you gotta have Cubans and what better way to do that than slather bronzer on Americans and have them say “Coo-ba” a lot. Roland is probably the most egregious example of this, with water constantly dripping off his uncomfortably hairy chest, talking to all the “chiquita lindas” in his vicinity and never missing an opportunity to add “aye aye aye” to the beginning of every line.
Adding insult to injury is Russell herself, who plays Egan’s wife, the Cuban Theresa. Russell’s bronzer is bad, but it’s enhanced by the fact that she’s wearing regular makeup as well on her face, giving her an overall cakey look that’s discomforting on Blu-ray. Sometimes she has a Cuban lilt to her voice and sometimes she just sounds like herself. The few times she does attempt to speak Spanish aren’t bad, but the audio sounds more muffled when she does, almost as if the sound mixer was hanging his head in shame.
What about the treasure hunting, you ask? For a movie that’s a little over 90-minutes the treasure hunting takes a lot of time to get to. The audience starts on a boat, as Johnny and Dominic discover a rare 16th-century treasure. Then Dominic has to get funding for the expedition, a factor that leads to him to a secretary named Gloria (played by Hughes paramour Lori Nelson), who happens to have a boat because plot contrivance. Then Johnny has to convince Theresa. By the time they’re on the open water we’re 50-minutes in. And once everyone starts taking a dip the movie falls into a leisurely nature documentary with its calming ocean waters and music that makes you think the Gill-Man is lurking somewhere below. (I wish.) Sure, Russell is threatened by a shark and then there are Cuban bandits that pop up, but they’re nothing that a good old American punch to the face can’t get rid of.
I will say, I love that Warner Archive actually went through the process of giving this a glittering release. Even terrible movies deserve to be available to the masses and Hughes-produced features are some of the wackiest out there. Underwater! isn’t a good movie by any stretch, but if you’re a Jane Russell fan or just want to see the different ways studios attempted to get people away from their TV and into a movie theater this is something.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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