I’m a big fan of movies produced by the studio system from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but I’m also the first to admit they can be more than a bit formulaic. They discovered what the audience wanted—romance, even if it’s implausible or unnecessary, good-looking people in peril, and most of all, a happy ending, even if it made no sense—and they gave it to them, year after year. So when I sit down on the couch and start a movie from that period that I’ve never heard of, my expectations aren’t high. I expect to be professionally entertained. And every once in a while I realize I’m seeing something that, while not a masterpiece, is better than the run-of-the-mill action romance.
This is one. It’s not so much that it lacks clichéd elements. It has them, such as the fact that there is no need at all for Carla Balenda to be in the picture except to give Dana Andrews a scene where he kisses her. There’s no chemistry. There’s no time for it. I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m just pointing out there is no reason for her to be on a fishing boat known as a Gloucesterman in Nazi U-Boat-infested waters other than romantic interest.
Dana is the captain of this particular tub, off the coast of Nova Scotia. As the Navy has told him, there’s more need of codfish in wartime than of just another swabbie, so he has remained a civilian. One night in a dense fog he and his crew hear Nazi machine guns. The fucking Nazis did that to fishing boats, to save torpedoes. They come across the hulk of a big sailing ship, storm-damaged and shot up. Aboard is only Claude Rains, the Danish captain. He tells his story, and Dana takes his ship in tow to a small port. But there’s something fishy about it all, and it ain’t codfish. A Danish crewman is suspicious of Captain Rains, and of another of Dana’s Danish crew. They explore the hulk at anchor and discover that beneath the cargo of Jamaican rum is a big room full of maybe a hundred torpedoes. The ship is a cleverly disguised sub tender, refueling and re-arming the U-Boats.
Here it’s not so much the story (which ain’t bad) but the way it’s told. The scenes in the fog and on the empty ship are genuinely spooky. The discovery of the mechanical fish is nice. The action as the people of the village and the American crew battle the fucking Nazis is well-mounted. It’s the small things, the paying attention to details, that sets this apart for me from a hundred other wartime action pics. I was pleasantly surprised.