The Enemy Below is not a great film, but it’s enjoyable enough if you like war movies.
It’s World War II and the USS Haynes, a Buckley-class destroyer escort, is sailing somewhere in the South Atlantic. Given the context, you might think that no news is good news, but the main complaint from the crew of the Haynes is boredom—they haven’t seen any action in ages, and they’re not sure their new commander is really on the ball. If you’ve ever seen a war movie before, you can guess what happens next—a German U-boat comes up on their radar, and under the guidance of Lieutenant Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum), the crew of the Haynes begins pursuing the U-boat to try to destroy it.
Meanwhile, the crew of the U-boat has detected the Haynes, and, led by Captain von Stolberg (Curt Jürgens), sets out to sink it. The two ships are soon engaged in a real-life game of cat and mouse, or actually cat and cat, since both have offensive capabilities: depth charges for the destroyer and torpedoes for the U-boat. This setup is not surprising for a World War II film, but Dick Powell’s The Enemy Below takes a new approach to familiar material—both the German and American captains are humanized, and both come to respect each other. The crews of both ships are also portrayed as men doing their duty and serving their respective countries honorably, which is not what you tended to see in movies made while the war was still on.
It’s a refreshing change and the most interesting thing about The Enemy Below. Maybe enough time had passed since the war (The Enemy Below was first released in 1957) that Hollywood figured people were ready for more nuanced stories, or perhaps the necessity of presenting a united front against Communism was more important than piling on our former enemies. For all that, The Enemy Below is not a great film, but it’s enjoyable enough if you like war movies. The supporting actors, including Theo Bikel, David Hedison, and Russell Collins, are adequate but not greater, and their characters tend to fit into the stereotypical slots that typically populate this type of movie. Wendell Mayes’ script, based on a novel by British naval officer Denys Rayner, is sometimes static and talky but can also be poetic and has a nice twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.
The USS Whitehurst stands in for the USS Haynes, with many of the Whitehurst’s crewmen taking part in the film. This gives the sections of the film set among the American crew a real air of authenticity, a feeling not echoed in the sections taking place among the Germans, with the main problem being that the U-boat is portrayed as far more roomy and comfortable that was actually the case (a more realistic view is seen in the 1981 film Das Boot). Sound editor Walter Rossi received the Academy Award for Best Special Effects for his work on this film. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Enemy Below is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The only extras on the disc are the trailers for this and three other movies (Fixed Bayonets, The Secret Invasion, and The Train).