The Atomic Submarine: Saving the World on a Shoestring Budget

Spencer Gordon Bennet’s The Atomic Submarine has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. It is easy enough to dismiss the film as kiddie matinee fare but, really, what science fiction–adventure movie from the 1950s wasn’t intended, at some level, to reach that audience? And, indeed, that was exactly how it made its money back in 1959 and 1960, creeping out preteens, to their delight. Still, as such movies go, it’s about as good as they get, occupying that substratum of the sci-fi genre below those rare bigger-budgeted, major studio productions—such as MGM’s Forbidden Planet, Universal’s This Island Earth, and The Incredible Shrinking Man—but more complex and ambitious than such minuscule-budgeted, one-idea (albeit sometimes a neat idea) works as Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth.

The fact that it’s still of interest more than forty years later is a tribute to its odd mix of elements, beyond the standard fare: a not-bad mystery story involving extraterrestrials operating underwater; a script and plot that include serious, topical political debate; a cast that draws equally on old western stars and horror film veterans of the early 1940s, with a couple of serious younger dramatic leads; and grisly special effects spiking an array of tacky yet eerie undersea sequences—plus a final segment, a third act if you will, lifted from classical mythology. It’s a movie that straddles several subgenres of science fiction and adventure films, so unsure of itself, on the one hand, that its narrator, Pat Michaels, is given ridiculous hyperbole with which to regale us (“it was foolish, it was insane, it was fantastic”) but, on the other, sure enough to try to bundle a serious patriotic message within its retelling of a chunk of the Odysseus myth. And then there’s that weird-ass score by Alexander Laszlo.

Screenwriter Orville H. Hampton—who also had a producer’s interest—forged a story and script that managed to get references to Homer’s Odyssey (as well as Hesiod’s Theogony) into the same scene with a discussion about flying saucers. He misses a good chance to equate Cyclops with Poseidon, which, given the story’s seaborne nature, seems a natural, but the allusion to classical mythology is there, and the adventure of the Tiger Shark’s crew aboard the alien vessel, as they are “devoured” one by one, is a close-enough parallel to Homer and the fate of Odysseus’s men in the cave of Polyphemus. (An especially observant viewer might also note the presence—­certainly pure happenstance—of coproducer Henry Schrage, who had previously served as associate producer and production manager on Bert I. Gordon’s fourth film, The Cyclops, from 1957, a much more prosaic reuse of the Polyphemus story.) And Arthur Franz’s offhand reference to the losses of friends and shipmates as “fortunes of war” is in keeping with the macho mentality of the script.

The casting is as odd as the script. Dick Foran—who had entered movies as a band singer twenty-five years earlier, in the Shirley Temple vehicle Stand Up and Cheer, before getting sidetracked into B westerns, with the occasional supporting role in big-budget studio movies (The Petrified Forest, The Fighting 69th)—is nominally one of the leads. He’s also the oldest-­looking submarine commander in movie history, obviously there because he was a credible box office name (a star, if just a B one; but you weren’t going to get Clark Gable or even Ronald Reagan for The Atomic Submarine—besides, Robert Wise and Nathan Juran had already gotten them for Run Silent, Run Deep and Hellcats of the Navy, respectively).

Still, Foran had a commanding presence and could get lines in one take. Then there are the real leads: Arthur Franz, a stage actor who should have become an established dramatic lead after the Stanley Kramer thriller The Sniper but instead ended up with big roles in sci-fi thrillers like Invaders from Mars and doing excellent work in smaller roles in big pictures such as The Young Lions; and Brett Halsey, a contract player who had earlier starred in Speed Crazy and Return of the Fly, did lots of horror films and some TV work in the 1960s, and ultimately made his mark in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III.

Joi Lansing is on board, if not aboard, as a piece of delectable eye candy (which was what she did best), virtually reprising and expanding a role that she’d played in Edward Bernds’s Queen of Outer Space the year before (and though that movie was made in color and CinemaScope, it was an example of filmmaking truly on the cheap, complete with hand-me-down costumes and props from Forbidden Planet). Bob Steele and Jack Mulhall go back to silent-era westerns and action pictures of the 1920s—and there is a marvelous symmetry in the fact that The Atomic Submarine was originally distributed by Allied Artists, the successor organization to Monogram Pictures, where Steele and company made many an oater thirty years before. And above them all stands Tom Conway, as the avuncular scientist trying to reason out the mystery. The well-spoken, and by all accounts more genial, brother of George Sanders, he’d made his name in Val Lewton’s horror thrillers and as the Falcon fifteen years earlier, and he brought more than a touch of class to The Atomic Submarine in the Indian summer of his career.

The movie was also among the late work of director Spencer Gordon Bennet, a veteran of more than one hundred films—almost all of them action-adventure titles—going back to 1921, and in the business since 1912, when he’d answered an ad for a stuntman’s job in New York and ended up leaping from the Palisades for one dollar for each foot he dropped. And it was a production of the London-born, Hollywood-based producer Alex Gordon, who, like his younger brother, Richard, parlayed a boyhood love of movies into a career making them. Alex started his career as a writer associated with Edward D. Wood Jr., before moving over to American International Pictures, where he produced Apache Woman (1955) and The She-Creature (1956), among other good low-budget fare. He subsequently worked for the major studios and became an important figure in the field of film restoration. (The companion film in this double feature, 1958’s First Man into Space—shot in England but set in the United States—is a production of Richard Gordon.)

The Atomic Submarine doesn’t try to hide the fact that it uses models. Indeed, at times it seems to revel in its low-budget special effects. The Tiger Shark has the highest ceilings (or, more properly, bulkheads) of any submarine ever seen on-screen. The models give the movie an eerie unreality that works within the context of the story and the production—in the same way as many plays or operas, or any other dramatic entertainment, ­really, with a willing audience happy to suspend disbelief. The film gets away with it—and with a spaceship interior that looks like it cost about $1.29 to design—in no small part due to the strange, otherworldly quality of the music, composed and conducted by Alexander Laszlo, that covers most of the effects shots. The Hungarian-born, German-raised Laszlo had enjoyed a career as a composer in Weimar-era Germany, where he developed an elaborate theory on the relationship of sound to color. After Hitler came to power, he made his way to Hollywood, where he became a fixture in the low-budget movie scene and early filmed television. One of his biggest successes and most familiar pieces was the theme for My Little Margie, a manic romp on winds and pizzicato strings that delighted (or annoyed the hell out of) early fifties television viewers. For The Atomic Submarine, he returned to his avant-garde roots and poured a good deal of his expertise into the score—the mix of shrill oscillations, electric organs miked so close that you can almost hear their action, and overamplified electric pianos and other keyboards, intermingled with repetitive horn passages and up-close-and-personal strings, helps cover a multitude of visual imperfections.

And to top off the oddball cast and design there’s the topical, political nature of the script. Hampton may have read his Homer, or at least the Cliffs Notes version, but he also seems to have taken a page out of Robert Heinlein’s book. Most fifties sci-fi, being a product of that decade, tried to steer clear of politics, with the notable exceptions of Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Wise’s movie was the product of the one major studio, Fox, that didn’t seem to have a problem declaring its liberal leanings, even in the fifties, while The Thing from Another World>, an allegory about the debate over nuclear weapons, approached its politics obliquely. Most of the competition stayed away from issues like that.

But Hampton’s script gives us two characters at its center who seem to embody the right-left struggle over national defense. Franz’s “Reef” Holloway is sort of the John Wayne (or, more properly, given The Atomic Submarine’s genre and budget, the John Agar) stand-in here, a two-fisted navy man, with a revered mentor, who is everything an engineer (and a nuclear navy officer) might aspire to be. His background immediately calls to mind Heinlein’s heroes. Halsey’s Dr. Carl Neilson is the Ph.D. holder and antimilitary idealist. The script, by the nature of the story and the crisis at its center, is weighted in Holloway’s favor, though one could argue that the two men find a middle ground, Neilson showing his mettle where it matters and Holloway beginning to question the value of fighting. He’s man enough to admit that Neilson has what it takes, having piloted the Depth Explorer (a.k.a. the Lungfish) out of danger as well as any thirty-year navy quartermaster might have. The movie ends on that positive note, resolving a personal conflict between its principals, and returns to where it started, with Reef Holloway about to go off on leave. And just to show how much Holloway now regards Neilson, he shares with him the one comical repercussion of his encounter with “Cyclops”—the loss of that ubiquitous attribute of any healthy 1950s unmarried male, his little black book, which brings us back to Joi Lansing . . .

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