Underwater! (John Sturges, 1955) 🇺🇸

Underwater! (John Sturges, 1955) 🇺🇸

July 31, 2021

This is not an advertisement for a one-piece swimming costume, but a poster for John Sturges' film Underwater! featuring the voluptuous actress Jane Russell in her finest attire. In 1955, the bikini (named after the Pacific atoll) had not yet invaded beaches. Since an American law (the Hays Code) forbade the showing of bellybuttons on screen, few actresses, apart from Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner, dared show themselves in this minimalist outfit. 

The bottom of the poster announces the delights to come: Jane Russell, "as you’ve never seen her before". We had previously encountered her as the sultry heroine of The Outlaw directed by Howard Hughes (also producer of Underwater!), the brunette in the famous Men Prefer Blondes where she played Marilyn Monroe's sidekick, and the cabaret singer in Sternberg's Macao. We find her here as Vénus des mers chaudes, the French translation of Underwater! - whose exclamation mark says a lot about her generous measurements. By acquiring this poster, you will get your money's worth in terms of hyperbolic sensuality!  

But it is not limited to the flattering portrait of an actress. The underwater setting draws us into the adventures of intrepid divers, ready to do battle with some unpleasant predators, like the formidable shark our innocent heroine seems to have escaped from. No mask or snorkel disfigures her angelic face haloed by little bubbles of fear. She is always beautiful, in every situation.

In the film, she plays Theresa, newly married to Johnny (played by Richard Egan). They are struggling financially and looking for gold somewhere off the coast of Cuba, where a wreck of a boot-laden galleon is believed to lie. They embark on an exciting underwater treasure hunt, accompanied by a friend (Latin lover Gilbert Roland, son and grandson of Spanish matadors...who’s afraid of water!), an archaeologist priest in search of a Madonna, and Gloria (Lorie Nelson who should have played the role of Theresa) who rents them a boat. The dangers they face include fake shark hunters who turn out to be real crooks, a wreck threatening to fall off a cliff, imprisoning Theresa surrounded by sharks – but I won't spoil the ending!

The plot is a little thin, prompting several critics to describe the film as a "B-movie saved by A-grade actors". A film that nevertheless boasts a 3,000,000-dollar budget and took no less than three years to shoot! It is true that a lot of time and money was lost, because of the bad weather in Hawaii where it was shot. Forty tonnes of destroyed sets had to be rebuilt as well as an aquarium used for certain scenes. As far as records are concerned, it was not until Jim Cameron's Abyss that the record for 100 minutes shot underwater was broken. Which explains the exclamatory title Underwater!

Its premiere was no less noteworthy. The film was screened underwater, in a completely submerged cinema. The guests got to watch the film in more or less sexy diving clothes. Among them, the young Jayne Mansfield took the opportunity to promote herself by unfortunately (or fortunately) losing the top of her swimming costume, which earned her, fresh out the water, a contract with Warner Brothers.

As for me, far from laughing at all this media hype, I got real aesthetic pleasure out of watching these magnificent underwater images, perfectly balanced by the tan and sculptured beauty of an equally fascinating Richard Egan.

Check out the French version of this article.