Monday, May 25, 2009

Run Silent, Run Deep

"Run Silent, Run Deep" (Robert Wise, 1957) One of those general entertainment movies that manages to do so many things exceptionally well that one comes away grateful for the experience. Directed by Robert Wise with a true sense of claustrophobia, the script by John Gay maintains a strict military accuracy while displaying a keen sense of drama, psychology and brevity. A psychological drama, a war film, a story of mystery as well as redemption, the film manages to pull everything off with a propulsive rhythm and fine performances throughout.

Produced by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster,
Burt Lancaster the producer takes a back-seat to his star, Clark Gable, the older actor in one of his understated roles that takes into account his age. Gable's the flawed figurehead with shades of Ahab who finagles his way into the command of the S.S. Nerka patrolling the Pacific during World War II, having already lost one sub and and a frustrating convalescence at a desk-job.

Lancaster's exec Jim Bledsoe is torqued because Gable's Cmdr. "Rich" Richardson has pulled rank to get command—his command—and is now drilling the men to dive and shoot a torpedo within a record 35 seconds. The already suspicious crew starts to snarl about all this practice with nothing to show for it. Then a lucky strike convinces some of them the new Captain is golden, while the other half think he's out to torpedo their mission. Lancaster turns into a reluctant arbiter.

But, in their first attempt to sink Richardson's unsinkable Japanese war-ship things don't go so well leaving crew-members dead and injured and Lancaster in command.

Robert Wise is a master of filming people at work with a story-teller's eye for finding the perfect angle (without calling attention to it and himself) and an editor's sense of pace and construction. Wise is also a chameleon of style tamping down his presentation of professionals doing their jobs while also being able to ramp up the spectacle for the unreal worlds of musicals and science fiction. Given his work on this film, you could see why he'd be the perfect choice for the similarly set-bound "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

He also makes goods use of the usual crew of character actors who make up the Nerka's lovable mugs:
Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles, Nick Cravat and Joe Maross. The close quarters of a submarine makes the authentic plainness of their faces all the more important and brings them to a prominence near the bright lights of Gable and Lancaster. Both those lights are shaded somewhat, with Lancaster doing subtle, measured work, the kind that would dominate his later career. Gable, even subtler, is the King, here in his twilight, still burning brighter than the vast majority of actors. By this time, Gable was moving slower and had learned the power of economy and his Captain Richardson draws you in.

Finally, the story is a cracker-jack construction. Just when you think you've got it figured out, screenwriter Gay throws in an added complication that ramps up the idea that these are men strategizing in chaos and only repeated dips into the boiling oil of battle can make them seasoned enough to think clearly through the smoke and death.

"Run Silent, Run Deep" is an intelligent tribute to the fighting services without resorting to jingoism, racism or choired flag-waving. The film-makers' respect for the professionalism under duress of sub-crews runs silent and deep.

Memorial Day, 2009

Tomorrow: An "Anytime Movie" with a magician's touch

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