Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the grand Southern diva of the American theatre, Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968). For two years in the early ’30s, Bankhead tried her darndest to become a silver screen sensation, starring in five pictures for Paramount and one for MGM. Several of these pictures are quite hard to come by, but we will be featuring them all right here on That’s Entertainment! So far we’ve covered Tarnished Lady (1931), My Sin (1931), The Cheat (1931), and Thunder Below (1932). Today…
Devil And The Deep (1932)
A submarine commander’s jealousy drives his wife into the arms of another man, causing him to seek revenge. Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant. Story by Harry Hervey. Screenplay by Benn W. Levy. Directed by Marion Gering.
Tallulah is surrounded by stars in this neurotic tale of infidelity that’ll keep you near the edge of your seat for most of the 76 minutes. It is probably the best of Tallulah’s Paramount films — the script and story are solid (not great, but solid), her cast mates are strong and full of chemistry, and she is able to deliver a performance that is simultaneously theatrical and cinematic. While not a brilliant motion picture, it is a sleeper — a surprisingly coherent piece that may even inspire repeated viewings. As a critic who champions the strength of the narrative, I was quite pleased with the premise (see below).
“In North Africa, submarine commander Charles Sturm is insanely jealous of any attentions given his beautiful wife Diana, although she is innocent of infidelity… Due to his suspicions, he has his first officer Jaeckel transferred. After a terrible fight with her husband, Diana runs into the street at night and… meets a stranger who buys her perfume, and they fall in love, unaware of the other’s identity. The next morning, the commander introduces Diana to his new first officer, Lieutenant Sempter, the man with whom she had spent the night. The commander immediately suspects the two and confirms his suspicions when he detects Diana’s new perfume on Sempter’s handkerchief. Diana goes to the submarine to warn Sempter of her husband’s volatile temper but Sempter thinks she exaggerates. After confronting his wife and Sempter, the commander has the submarine submerge and then sabotages their maneuvers so the submarine collides with a ship and is knocked to the ocean floor, out of commission. The commander then sabotages the communications device. Diana proves to the crew that the commander is insane and Sempter takes control. He manages to save Diana and the crew by flooding the submarine and having everyone swim out through the buoy hatch. Sempter exits after a struggle with the commander, who, unable to open a door, drowns with the submarine. Later, a court finds Sempter guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer because of his relations with Diana. Diana waits for him outside the court and they reaffirm their love for each other.”
Yes, this is another Bankhead film where the studio shoehorns her into an exotic setting. The only difference here in Devil And The Deep (and the reason why it actually works) is that the story acknowledges the contrast between this character and her surroundings. This is a fish-out-of-water (pun intended) tale, and the alienation she suffers at the backhand of her terminally ill and perpetually jealous husband is what drives her into unleashing her wild side for a brief moment of passion. So the story is completely in tune with the character and the location, which makes for a most satisfying watch. And, naturally, Tallulah is able to actually play something here, since the script is more solid. She spends the entire picture in fear. But she doesn’t play it overly withdrawn or passive as she did in the laboriously dull My Sin (1931). No, she allows her neuroses to become a visible thing — in her body, in her face, in her eyes. You firmly believe Bankhead is this character, and because she’s allowed to be an ACTIVE presence, she’s really able to deliver. Though spared of histrionics, you can tell this is a creature of the stage. And yet, she lets some things plays subtly under the surface — waiting to boil over. It’s marvelous.
Again, Bankhead is afforded the opportunity to create a character because of the writing. Now, I would never be so bold to declare this an excellent film (reasons to follow), but the motifs of jealousy and passion, infidelity and loyalty are great fodder for Pre-Codes. And any picture having to do with water opens itself up for a plethora of metaphors and interpretations. One could, for the first time in a Tallulah Bankhead picture, attempt to analyze these characters — for they are given several dimensions (most of them, anyway). I’m speaking particularly of Bankhead and Laughton’s characters, whose dynamic is believable and frightening. We believe they were once close, but now fear for her safety. There’s some affection, but absolutely no romance. It’s a relationship built on fear, and it plays well in the context of the story. The script does try to gain extra sympathy for Laughton by ascribing his paranoia to a neurological condition, but it isn’t needed; Laughton is a capable enough performer to deliver a nuanced performance all on his own. In fact, this really isn’t Bankhead’s film — it’s Laughton’s.
Of course, we’re more interested in Bankhead, and classic film fans will delight in the fact that she also gets to share the screen with both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, her main love interest. However, I found that Bankhead shared more romantic chemistry with the former, with whom she did not actually have an affair. Her maturity coupled with his relative innocence made for some genuine sparks, and I wish we got to see a little more of that. Meanwhile, the stoic Cooper, though purportedly courted by Bankhead off camera, doesn’t really spark when with Bankhead. He’s masculine, strong, and capable of delivering his lines. But he and Bankhead don’t make magic. This is the picture’s biggest flaw. And this, in addition to his character’s lack of depth (even when literally down deep under the Mediterranean) is what sinks the picture from “great” to “good.”
But again, there’s a lot to recommend here. And for really the first time in this Bankhead series, I can recommend the film for ALL classic Pre-Code fans. It’s a good psychological thriller. Some passion, some danger, some fun. Great watch; seek it out!
Come back next Friday for one more Tallulah Bankhead Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!