Up from The Cape: 15 January 2018
As they mellow with age, some people admit to strange transgressions made earlier in their lives. They’ve kept quiet them about until now, but with the confidence born of maturity (or perhaps bravado) it leads them to spill the beans. I’ve put a different slant on this. Rather than admitting to iffy things I’ve done in the distant past, I’ve decided to invert it by admitting something iffy I did over the weekend; I watched a 1965 film called “The City Under the Sea”. I did this in full expectation of what it was going to be like. There are no excuses or mitigating circumstances.
I succumbed to this temptation because the film title bore a vague nostalgic resemblance to the entertaining 1960s series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” It also reminded me of the old Hollywood film adaptations of Jules Verne stories. These films generally present formal, upright men in tweed jackets who say “good heavens!”, or muscly crewmen in striped shirts who say “aye cap’n” shortly before panicking and abandoning their posts in a crisis. Normally there’s a giant octopus or squid in the mix somewhere that divers have to stab repeatedly as it coils prop-department tentacles around them. Ultimately, that was the destination my expectations believed we’d disembark at.
What I’d forgotten in the flood of nostalgia for VTTBOTS & the Jules Verne adaptations, is it was made at Pinewood, with all that implies in relation to the budget available in 1965. Pinewood has moved on a lot since 1965, but the film was then, not now. It follows that a lot of the film appeared to be spent on one sound-stage, with the cast clambering about over prop-department boulders and fake stone slabs aimlessly. They were watched by some grim “stone” idols of the sort that the cost conscious director Roger Corman was always delighted to find in the scene dock when he worked on British productions.
Over time, we all evolve our own measures of things in life. One of my absolute benchmarks for defining madness is an image of someone dressed in 18th century clothing, playing an organ at midnight, while reading aloud from the works of Edger Allen Poe in the voice of Vincent Price. The City Under the Sea ticked almost all those boxes. It lacked only the organ (and perhaps midnight). Vincent Price’s metaphoric steadying hand was there, along with the works of Edger Allen Poe in echoing voice-over.
Price was dressed throughout like Samuel Johnson but with an American Civil War beard. He was nervously obsessed with the technology that kept his undersea city alive. “The pumps……….one day they will stop” he said on one occasion, as he gave newly arrived captives Tab Hunter, David Tomlinson, and a chicken the obligatory supreme dictator’s rush-tour of his realm. No story of this type would be complete without a sword of Damocles of some kind hanging over the narrative. So it was Price fretted endlessly about “the pumps”. It didn’t seem like much to worry about from my perspective, but then I don’t live underwater.
A staple of films like this featuring a hidden city, is that in addition to a long-term worry over something like “the pumps” there’s a more immediate danger. In this case the city was threatened with destruction by an active undersea volcano. This was bad luck in it’s purest form. Active volcanoes off the British south-west coast – where the film appeared to be set – aren’t commonplace, at least in the last few million years. Perhaps as a consequence of that, the props department were pressed into service to supply a stand-in volcano for the screen. Their solution was a plaster crater with a red light-bulb pulsing at its centre. Well, this was the 1960s – long before George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company.
Vincent Price, as always, justified top billing by doing what he does best; he looked and sounded absolutely ridiculous with consummate professionalism. As an actor he often had the haunted and resentful aspect of a man mad enough to think he was married to a cucumber sandwich that had just been eaten. It’s hard to judge what the wedding reception must have been like for him. It’s possible his cucumber sandwich bride was eaten at it by a guest. On that basis, I can forgive him some moodiness.
In the film Price was absolute dictator of the undersea city. He’d just happened to stumble upon it as a younger man. With diligence, he climbed the hierarchy to become a custodian/supreme and deadly dictator. This evolved still further through a penchant for randomly condemning people to death, much like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. What an “old soul-mates reunited” dinner that would have made. The variance Price introduced was that death came at the hands of “the gill-men” rather than the secret police. The gill-men were in reality just some commonplace Pinewood Studios swimmers. They’d been issued with carnival-style masks to give them what the art director hoped (vainly) would be a marine-like appearance.
Whenever Vincent Price deemed it was time for another unfortunate inhabitant of the city to die, he commanded a Big-Ben type bell to clang repeatedly. This tipped-off the gill-men that more quarry was on the way, so they should stop whatever wretched underwater activity they were involved in, and gather round for the next victim. “They need another sacrifice to the volcano God” Price said, staring out of a window to the ocean with a wistful Jack Lord-type smile. He could easily have been Hitler remembering the faces of the conspirators against him, and dwelling upon their fate. “It keeps them happy for a while” he said. Meanwhile the gill-men were swimming about in view of the window like goldfish waiting to be fed. Evidently this is what people did before daytime TV. Was it worse then or now? Only you can decide.
Films like this often reveal their pedigree during the main titles. If I tell you that David Tomlinson paired with a chicken as a “comic” double-act, rocketed to the No 2 billing behind Vincent Price and his Civil War beard (with Tab Hunter in touching distance of both of them), it gives a fair insight into what to expect. I read somewhere this was director Jacques Tourneur’s last film. I’m beginning to understand why. After watching the rushes he must have gone out to his car, attached a hosepipe to the exhaust, and popped it in through the driver’s side window, then closed the door behind him quietly and taken a long, deep breath. I know I would have.
The actor John Le Mesurer put in an appearance as a distracted elderly vicar with a tame beard of his own. He was exactly the same as he’d go on to be (minus the beard) in Dad’s Army; a mild, kindly man, often lost in happy dreams. He seemed forever poised on the edge of saying something like “I really am most terribly sorry…..I was just thinking what awfully kind faces those gill-men had.” It wouldn’t have worked in this context; there was no Captain Mainwaring to look furious. Bringing up the rear of the cast was an obligatory woman-victim in a needlessly voluminous and plunging neckline dress. The only function these contrived women ever had in the 1960s was to be a sort of sub-Dr Who assistant – fit only to be relentlessly cheerful, stupid, and ultimately, captured.
In due course, and like a recurring nightmare, everything that happened in all previous films of this type, happened again in this one. There’s always about ten minutes of reel time that needs to be wasted, so obligingly it was wasted in some drawn out undersea chases and choreographed “struggles” as the gill-men caught up with the “fugitives.” Once that cliché box had been ticked, Vincent Price was allowed to race up a passageway madly into the daylight where, predictably, he collapsed and aged about two hundred years upon being exposed to UV rays. That brought him broadly into line with the vintage of the clichés in the story.
The fugitives, meanwhile, found their way onto a beach. Throughout their escape, David Tomlinson had been giving his chicken some very worrying sly glances as it perched on his shoulder inside his Victorian deep-sea diver’s helmet. I couldn’t judge if this was because he was getting hungry, or if they just had a psychic connection and were sharing sea-stories. They seemed well-matched. With film running out, the plaster volcano blew its top and took the gill-men with it, along with any hopes of doing justice to the original Edgar Allen Poe story the film is alleged to have been based upon.
Seafarin’ men of ages past have offered the opinion that if a ship has its name changed, bad luck follows. It’s possible there’s more than an element of truth in this. It’s equally possible that it applies to films. The end titles revealed that The City Under the Sea was also called “War Gods of the Deep.” Whether or not that tagged it as cursed I can’t say. What I can say is that any actors willing to appear in a supporting role to a chicken have lent fate a big hand in their own march to oblivion.