Underwater! (1954)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 6/8/20
Director: John Sturges
Cast: Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland, Richard Egan, Lori Nelson

"A lousy fortune sitting under our keel, and I wasn't losing any part of it. Not to woman, sand, the devil, or deep water."

Johnny (Richard Egan) and Dominic (Gilbert Roland) find a sunken ship off the coast of Cuba, which might be a clue to finding a fabled treasure. Unfortunately, the treasure ship sits precariously on the edge of a deep trench and a group of local shark hunters are constantly harassing the crew. Johnny's use of dynamite and heavy equipment also puts the salvage operation at risk, which adds a little excitement to the adventure.

While the film's main draw is seeing Jane Russell in a swimsuit, it was also a pioneering effort in the realm of underwater photography. It was reportedly one of the first movies to feature scuba gear, and nearly the entire picture takes place underwater. However, the production was plagued with problems. It was originally filmed in Hawaii until the sets were destroyed by storms and the water became too cloudy to shoot in. Then the production moved to Jamaica and the sets were destroyed again. The film was finally completed in a newly built underwater tank at RKO studios, where the sets were reconstructed a third time. The film looks great and the underwater shots are marvelous, although the 200-year old shipwrecks are hilariously well-preserved.

Gilbert Roland makes a charming rogue and the lovely Jane Russell is quite captivating, despite her uneven and unconvincing Spanish accent. Richard Egan is the weakest element, which is unfortunate because he's the main character. His constant narration of the story is disruptive and annoying, which makes it sound like a Disney nature documentary. Lori Nelson also provides some female eye candy, although she has very little to do other than sit around and look pretty. Reportedly, producer Howard Hughes originally offered her Jane Russell's role, but Russell owed RKO a film so they just wrote another character for Nelson to play.

The film works well as a breezy romantic adventure set in a tropical locale. That said, the action is light and there's very little tension or underwater peril. While the shark hunters pose a constant lingering threat, there's never any real sense of danger. Even the sharks that lurk around the sunken ships are innocuous. Of course, in the real world, pirates wouldn't think twice about murdering everyone and stealing their gold, but that would rob the audience of a happy Hollywood ending for the young and attractive leads.