“In THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP (1932), Paramount Pictures place Charles Laughton in charge of a submarine. It sinks.”
I tweeted this, and the Self-Styled Siren said she was a bad Laughton fan for laughing. Not at all! To admire Laughton’s craft and peerless imagination is not the same as to believe that the kind of character he plays would excel in a position of command. Look at Captain Bligh. In the role of “the Commander” in this movie, he’s been set up to fail, for the first half establishes him as a lunatic in the throes of psychotic jealousy, trashing Cary Grant’s career on the mere suspicion that he’s overly fond of Mrs Commander (Talullah Bankhead). So Mr Grant is out of the picture, and Gary Cooper comes into it, which is even worse news for marital harmony, as you might expect.
All of this plays out in Paramount North Africa, before we decamp to the sub, making the movie a sort of MOROCCO/HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER mash-up. In Part One we get a beautiful lunar oasis tryst, whirling dervishes and tenacious salesmen. In Part Two we get a collision, bursting bulkheads, flooding compartments, and Laughton’s descent into final madness even as his sub descends to the ocean floor, as fatally compromised as his marriage.
Bankhead plays the virtuous wife driven into adultery by hubbie’s paranoia with dignity and just enough melodrama. Grant is still in awkward, stiff-necked mode. Coop pouts and purses his lips a lot. His performances come in two varieties: those with a mute running commentary from the writhing lips, and those without. Both are good, but I tend to prefer the more stationary lip approach. Anyway, Laughton is the whole show.
Faced with a cardboard lunatic to play, the Great Man breaths seething life into him through bold decisions — this jealous nut actually wants to be proved right, to catch his wife in flagrante, and when he does so he goes from tense to relaxed. Laughton wheels out his cherubic smirk. The terrible doubt is over (because if Mrs Commander is innocent, then that “brain specialist” was RIGHT) and now he can proceed to DESTROY THE WORLD. Actually, he can’t, because he doesn’t have a Doomsday Device to hand, but he can certainly crash his sub into an oncoming ship and send her to the bottom of the sea with all hands and feet.
It’s been suggested that suicides often cheer up once they’ve actually made the decision to do it — once that choice is made, there’s nothing more to worry about. Laughton either knew this or, quite probably, intuited it, so that his character becomes positively triumphant as he steers his men towards doom, and only sinks into a despond when any reasonable argument threatens the logic of his annihilation. In one such scene, the distressed Commander pulls on his face, gradually squishing his cheeks up and drawing them downwards until the whole fleshy construction resembles a wad of dough suspended from his eyelids. Don’t tell me Charles didn’t practice this in front of the mirror. For hours.
Marion Gering directs with zest, although his attempts at dramatic flourishes are mostly rendered redundant by Laughton’s stylistic exuberance — you really don’t need a giant ECU of the twitching eyes, not when you have a player as expressive as CL.