Often imitated, this movie practically drew the blueprint for the World War II submarine movie. This lean, efficient story of the hunter and the hunted rises above the pack, courtesy of a pair of superb performances in the roles of two crisply drawn antagonists. Some elements of the film seem conspicuously dated, especially the scenes aboard the American destroyer that don’t involve Robert Mitchum hunting the submarine, but when the action is joined, the forced, stilted dialog disappears like it never existed.
The film takes place in the South Atlantic aboard the U.S.S. Haynes, a destroyer escort sweating out the war in a theater that promises little in the way of action. Their new captain, Murrell (Mitchum) is an enigma. All they really know about him is that he’s already had one ship shot out from under him in the North Atlantic. Some of the veteran crew members deride him as a “feather merchant” or a civilian officer. In reality, he’s an experienced freighter captain who joined the fight after losing yet another ship to a U-boat. When the ship’s radar picks up what might be the conning tower, Murrell begins to allay the crew’s fears with decisive actions that demonstrates that he knows what he is doing.
Aboard the German sub, Kapitän von Stolberg (Curt Jürgens) is a war-weary veteran of the First World War, openly contemptuous of “New Germany.” He’s bitter that he’s survived long enough to see what has happened to his country. His second-in-command, “Heinie” Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel), knows him better than anyone and admits that he barely knows him at all. Third in command, Von Holem (Kurt Kreuger) is a dedicated Nazi who avidly reads Mein Kampf during his downtime. The U-boat is on a mission to rendezvous with some German raiders.
When the American ship is spotted, it begins a tense chess game in which neither captain seems able to gain the upper hand. Murrell can’t get into position to deliver the killing blow while von Stolberg can’t elude the destroyer long enough to slip away. Both men develop a grudging respect for each other’s abilities as they jockey for position. The U-boat can’t stay submerged forever and the American ship will eventually be outnumbered by the German raiders.
For a movie of its period, the film is remarkably accurate, probably due to the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. The battle scenes play out matter-of-factly with a minimum of Hollywood baloney. The film is also commendably even handed in its treatment of the Germans. The scenes aboard the U-boat seem realistic enough, even if the interior seems a bit spacious compared to what we later see in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. Of course, political realities naturally require that the dedicated Nazi is the one German with feet of clay, proposing surrender the moment things start to go badly.
The Enemy Below is also surprisingly realistic for the time in its treatment of the realities of war. At least two moments graphically show the effects of combat injuries, include one sailor with his arm blown off. The blood and gore is mild for today but must have been fairly shocking in 1957.
As long as you can get past a handful of moments, mostly near the beginning of the film, where unrealistic dialog jars you out of your sense of reality, the rest of film remains one of the best naval movies of its time and the best submarine movie until Das Boot.