Though it sounds like the punchline to a dirty riddle, Judge Bill Gibron assures us that this tepid war film is the only joke played on the audience.
They said he's the best. Now the Human Torpedo must prove it.
Kenneth Braden (James Garner, Murphy's Romance) is one of the Navy's up-and-coming shining stars. Unfortunately, his rushed training schedule has him completely unprepared for his latest mission. After a whirlwind romance with a mysterious woman named Sally Johnson (Andra Martin, The Thing That Couldn't Die), he is shipped off on a submarine piloted by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmund O'Brien, Seven Days in May). His task: to gain access to a Japanese codebook that will aid in the deciphering of secret messages. On the journey, he befriends jovial crewmember Pat Malone (Alan Hale, Gilligan's Island) and learns that Stevenson is under scrutiny for a decision he made during an attack. It cost a crew member his life, and everyone understands that the Commander does things by the book, no matter the consequence. After a mid-ocean scuffle with an enemy destroyer, Braden finds his island objective. But the assignment is risky and, if he's not back in time, Stevenson will up and leave without him. It will take nerves of steel to gather the necessary information. Then it's Up Periscope and, hopefully, out of harm's way.
Up Periscope is really four incomplete films crammed together, neither of the quartet generating much entertainment or interest. It starts off as a rather odd romantic comedy, with James Garner pressing his advantage, BIG TIME, with just-met paramour Andra Martin. Before we know it, that tale is scuttled to focus on Edmund O'Brien and how his "by-the-book" bullspit cost one of his submarine crew his life. A few frowning faces, and it's on to storyline number three. This one's a real kicker—it involves Garner, a proposed secret mission to a Japanese island outpost, and the accessing of a codebook. The final plot point involves Garner's outsider status rustling a few sub crew feathers, and how he manages to overcome their personal bias to win their support. Now, any one of these narratives would make a nice late 50's Hollywood B picture. Even the "moon/June/spoon" stuff has the novel twist of Martin being an undercover government agent, given the task of testing Garner's mantle for the espionage project. But director Gordon Douglas's decidedly middling Tinseltown track record argues against the possibility of any one of these sagas succeeding. Though he was responsible for such nifty nail-biters as Them! (giant ants go goofy), Lady in Cement (starring Frank Sinatra as Tony Rome), and the In the Heat of the Night sequel They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, he can't gather together the divergent elements here. Instead, Up Periscope becomes a scattered, disorganized mess.
Tone is a tricky thing in film—mess with it too much and the audience doesn't understand the underlying emotional foundation for the story. Up Periscope shifts its mood around so much that you'd swear it was in need of some cinematic Prozac. The scenes between Garner and Martin are slightly comic, the moments between O'Brien and his crew dire and dark. When our man Maverick heads out into a Japanese lagoon to do his underhanded skullduggery, the atmosphere shifts again. Granted, it's dull and derivative when it should be slick and suspenseful, but what are you gonna do? Douglas then does the unthinkable and tries to combine all three, with the submarine crew acting crazy and Garner having a flashback to his last date with Martin while the action-sequence pyrotechnics are lighting up the screen. This is one very confused movie, not made any better by the lackluster performances all around. Garner is good, but not quite hero material. O'Brien is so sour you'd swear he was dipped in lemon juice. Alan Hale (yes, it's The Skipper, though the credits make it sound like his father is playing the free-spirit steward Pat Malone) is all lustful appetites and very little subtlety, and some odd ancillary actors (including Warren Oates, Frank Gifford, and Ed "Kookie" Byrnes) are more distracting than complementary.
But perhaps the most exasperating element of Up Periscope is its lack of purpose. If it wants to glorify the men who served this nation during World War II, it goes about it in a very undignified way. Garner is a whiner instead of a winner, and the submarine crew enjoys complaining more than sinking Japanese ships. The mission is so poorly explained and realized that it becomes nothing more than a glorified game of hide and seek. We are supposed to care about the romantic relationship forged at the beginning of the film, but it's so inconsequential that we barely remember it once the payoff arrives. As a matter of fact, the most compelling concern during the movie's seemingly endless 111-minute running time is if Warren Oates will ever stop eating (food is his character's one-dimensional facet). With death around every dive and the title phrase finding its mark regularly, one would anticipate a spine-tingling tale of war torn valor speckled with just a little personal perspective. Instead, Up Periscope is a lousy excuse for amusement, a movie so dull it actually sucks time out of the cosmic continuum and reverses the Universe's forward motion. While some may favor its old-fashioned Hollywood concept of battle, most will wonder why anyone thought this storyline sensible in the first place.
Warner Bros.' release of this title is a decent DVD package. The only extra is a tacky trailer that has Garner shilling the film like it was a special favor to the audience. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is decent, colorful, and detailed while the Dolby Digital Mono is flat but fairly reliable in the dialogue delivery department. Individuals who've loved this film for years will be glad that it's finally made it onto the digital format. Others will wonder why better Warner efforts aren't making their way to home theater over this sunken shipwreck of a film. Someone should give Up Periscope "das Boot" before it puts an entire nation of moviegoers to sleep.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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