Underwater! (1955) *


Superficially, this is a mildly compelling yarn about deep sea treasure seekers. What we in fact have here is the consummate fifties entertainment package, as delivered by Howard Hughes (by this time so far lost in his own obsessions as to be by no means the man best qualified to supply such a thing), marshalling such lures to fifties sensibilities as Superscope wide screen, colour slathered onto the canvas as thickly as Lucian Freud's, and a hit tune in the catchy trumpet serenade Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. (It was taken to the charts in sundry versions, with and without lyrics, most famously by Eddie Calvert, the man with the golden horn.)
But most of all, of course, we have Jane Russell. Jane dry, Jane wet; Jane in a red swimsuit swimming from one side of the engorged screen to the other, then back again. The plot is nominal, as how could it not be in the face of such provocation? Dostoyevsky couldn't keep the human drama central against this kind of opposition.

The days when this was all it took to excite, to arouse and to engross are gone. If the film is ever enjoyed, it is with that condescension, so chilling in its biases, with which a culturally bankrupt generation instinctively reviews the achievements of its betters, as if our parents were children with nursery-level tastes, and should be pitied for their naivety, while we in our wisdom sit once removed and take purely sarcastic delight in the dialogue, the fashions and the simplistic thrills.
But recognise instead that the loss is truly ours, and pleasure can be reclaimed from so irresistibly innocent a concept of spectacle. The loss remains: ultimately, we can only imagine - or, if we are lucky, dimly recall - what it truly meant to be swept away by such things. But for those brave enough to acknowledge the shape of decline, a more than merry Saturday afternoon's fun can be dredged from this particular sunken wreck.