With the premier of Maverick on TV in 1957, star James Garner became a huge star across America. He wasn’t limited to television roles though, quickly transitioning to feature film roles as well. One of his earlier efforts as he rose to fame was a World War II submarine story, 1959’s Up Periscope.
It’s 1942 and the U.S. is beginning to push back against the Japanese in the Pacific. With an invasion of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands forthcoming, a U.S. Navy frogman, Lt. Kenneth Braden (Garner) has been assigned an incredibly dangerous mission. Allied intelligence hasn’t been able to break a key Japanese code so Braden will be a passenger on the USS Barracuda, a submarine led by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). The sub will sneak him onto a Japanese-held island where Braden will steal/photograph the code without being discovered. Meanwhile, the sub will wait off-shore until Braden can accomplish the mission. Can he though against nearly impossible odds?
Not remembered as one of the submarine genre classics that came out in waves following WWII, ‘Periscope’ is a solid if not flashy entry that’s worth a watch. Is the mission itself pretty goofy? You bet it is! But it’s exciting and features a strong cast, especially up at the top. Director Gordon Douglas had a string of these movies over the 1950s and 1960s, none of them considered classics but almost all of them damn entertaining.
Garner may always be remembered most for his starring TV roles, notably Maverick and The Rockford Files. To a newer film audience, probably for his key part in The Notebook! As a younger actor, Garner was as steady as they come. The Great Escape is my favorite Garner part, mostly because he makes it look so easy. That’s the case here. Garner’s Braden is cool, underplayed and ready for whatever the mission can throw at him. He’s not GI Joe though either (thankfully), just a capable officer who knows potentially what awaits him (he’s told not to get captured on the Japanese-held island). For lack of a better description, Garner is/was almost always likable on-screen. That’s certainly on display here.
Talk about two underrated actors, Garner and Edmond O’Brien are excellent together. Far from friendly, just two officers trying to do their job. O’Brien’s Stevenson is coming off a patrol that saw one of his crew die, maybe in needlessly cautious fashion. Fresh off the patrol, the crew is less than trusting. The veteran commander has to prove himself, both to himself and to his crew, all while trying to go by the book in a nearly impossible mission. Rock and a hard place for sure. Their chemistry though is excellent, heated and uncomfortable at times but never forced.
Among the crew, Alan Hale Jr. – pre-Gilligan’s Island – is a scene-stealer as Lt. Malone, a fun-loving and long-time ensign who everyone likes. There are also parts for Carleton Carpenter, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes, Henry Kulky and uncredited parts for Bernie Hamilton and Warren Oates (his first movie role). Slow-going early as we meet Garner’s Braden romancing Andra Martin’s Sally Johnson. Thankfully, there’s a twist in store for this kinda forced love story. Not your typical love story forcibly jammed into a war story!
All the war conventions are there here in ‘Periscope,’ the claustrophobic setting, the tension-ridden encounters with the enemy, both above and below the water, and that all-too familiar ping of the radar echoing through the conning tower. It’s in the last 45 minutes as Braden sneaks onto the island where the movie especially hits its groove. Stevenson and the Barracuda wait at the bottom of the island’s lagoon, their fresh air running out with each passing minute. A bit of a secret agent mixed with a submarine war story. A nice, little mix!
Worth a watch, especially for fans of the WWII, submarine and adventure genre! Also worth mentioning, the score borrows from Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. score from 1945’s Objective, Burma! which would also be sampled 3 years later in Merrill’s Marauders. It’s a good score so it’s definitely not a bad thing.
Up Periscope (1959): ** ½ /****