Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
The cover of Life magazine dated 1st September 1958 was devoted to Captain Anderson of
the USS Nautilus, not only captain of America's first nuclear submarine, but the man who
skippered the first vessel ever to travel beneath the "vast frozen top of the world"
during its 3rd August North Polar transit. At that time, atomic power carried both the shiny
new technological promise of the future, and the terrible threat of total thermonuclear annihilation.
So despite its low-budget trappings this frisson gave The Atomic Submarine a startling
double-whammy currency-value when it first screened at your local fleapit.
We SF-nerds knew that nuclear energy was the fuel that would take humans to the stars. The fictional 'Tigershark' - standing in for the USS Nautilus, was not a spaceship, but it was the next best thing: a sealed-in closed environment carrying its bickering crew through inhospitable realms towards the unknown. And if cheapo submariner sci-fi wasn't thrills enough - once there they discover that other 1950s' preoccupation, a UFO with a multi-tentacled cyclopean occupant. 'Alien menace destroys sub fleet' screams the poster reproduced on the DVD, with an invitation to 'dive into danger beneath the North Pole'.
Looting the kind of concept splashed across the Eagle centrespread sectional diagrams, a deadpan voiceover narrator explains how, in the impossibly distant far future of 1968, giant atomic-powered cargo subs regularly ply the trade route beneath the polar ice cap. But now various ships and seven subs have mysteriously vanished after reports of electrical storms and weird goings-on. The US Navy calls in the valiant crew of Tigershark who are tasked with the investigation - "to hunt down, identify the cause of these arctic disasters, and if humanly possible, remove it." Commander 'Reef' Holoway (B-movie stalwart Arthur Franz) briefly romances his glam-girlfriend before duty interrupts his intended coitus. The movie's only female; Joi Lansing could also be seen to advantage in Queen Of Outer Space.
Captain Wendover (Dick Foran) helms the secret super-submarine, enduring an egghead team of back-up scientists, one English, another who speaks with the kind of inexplicable eastern-European accent that denotes 'scientist' in 1950s' movies. Also on board is intense young peacenik scientist Dr Carl Nelson (Brett Halsey), standing in for his father - Reef's friend and revered mentor, co-inventor of the lungfish, a manned diving-bell mini-explorer. Their hostile clash of ideologies sets up tension, the moody "mixed-up oddball... he's all front with no back" versus military tough guy Holoway, the "little gold-braided puppet."
"Make a speech," demands Reef, "Ban flying saucers!" Though they initially despise each other, travelling together on "the strangest most fearful voyage ever made, towards a rendezvous with... what?" they finally agree on the mutual need to kick alien butt. David Miller and Mark Gatiss call it "a quintessential B-movie" in their book They Came From Outer Space!: Alien Encounters In The Movies (Visual Imagination, 1996), adding "high art it ain't, but in its own way it is quite perfect and endlessly enjoyable." Orville Hampton's serviceable dialogue-driven script is ripe with melodrama, even when the on-going narration is delivered by Pat Michaels in tones suggesting he's done voiceovers for too many documentaries.
The team of Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt contrived special effects for a number of low-budget 1950s motion picture sci-fi shockers - including Kronos, with its bizarre, energy-sucking giant cubist robot, and they manage to eke out passable effects in this one, too. With model-miniatures decidedly less super than 'supermarionation', the underwater killer-sub resembles the toy baking-powder subs they gave as free gifts in cereal packs, navigating a fish tank, but the aliens themselves are rather more convincing. Alexander Lazlo's electro-sonic score weirdly delineates the creepy moments, even when the spliced-in newsreel stock-footage is mismatched to the sharp clarity of the interior and exterior shots.
So, a flawed 1959 sci-fi film, maybe, but when the Tigershark finally reaches the Arctic, it is attacked by the alien craft, "an intelligence from beyond the Earth." ... "What do you think?" asks a crewman. "I think I should have joined the Air Force," snaps back the reply. Much later, manoeuvring in this coldest of cold wars, they 'bushwhack' the saucer as it loops the pole to "recharge its batteries" from the Earth's magnetic field - confusing the 'magnetic pole' with the geographic pole, which most maps locate a little to the north of Canada. Nevertheless, when torpedoes have no effect, Wendover orders a kamikaze-attack, only for the hull of the saucer to seal organically around the impacting Tigershark - probably the first sci-fi movie use of the 'living' spaceship concept, and the "two titanic craft locked in a death-grip" sink to the ocean floor.
The only way to extricate the submarine is for the crew to enter the alien craft and cut it free using torches. Reef leads a team into the saucer where the antagonists meet face-to-face, although with its tubular body ending in numerous slime-dripping tendrils, surmounted by one huge hairy eyeball, he protests, "that's a face!" In a compressed bit of exposition the alien compensates for inadequate plotting by filling in some backstory details. And needless to say, after surveying many Solar systems, they've chosen Earth for colonisation, "the Earth is doomed, and everyone on it." The aliens use a heat-beam to shrivel one crewmember in convincingly nasty negative-visuals. So Reef shoots the alien in its eye and gloopy-stuff pours out.
As in Odysseus, the Cyclops is blinded. Unlike Odysseus, with a little reverse-film trickery, the eye regenerates. Reef decides that if the Tigershark can't stop him, no power on Earth can," so a timely ICBM curtails the saucer's mission. Come to think of it, the now-terminated aliens are look-alikes for The Simpsons' salivating cyclopean duo Kang and Kodos, even their ominous voice (by John Hilliard) sounds suspiciously similar. Chances are this is their direct inspiration. But if Matt Groening was taking note, so was Irwin Allen. A few years later he launched his nuclear super-sub 'Seaview' in the Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1961) movie, which spun-off into the TV-series in which the crew faced their own aquatic alien threats through four wonderfully extravagant series.
Meanwhile, even though the only extra is a theatrical trailer in full frame and mono, Gilbert Warrenton's cinematography for The Atomic Submarine is well-served by its transfer to DVD where the sharply defined shades of shadow-black or pure white highlight the imagery to best advantage. Needless to say, atomic submarines are now seen less as glamorous techno-killware and more a tedious drain on taxation budgets, but you never know, if those damned Cyclops return we just might need one!