Life is Laborious for Garner Aboard a Submarine
War movies based upon a submarine can really be quite good, the confined space delivers immediate atmosphere and the danger of being under the water can deliver excitement. The trouble is that they can all seem rather similar going through one expected set piece of danger to another. And that is part of the problem when it comes to "Up Periscope" starring James Garner; it often feels quite routine going through standards when it comes to submarine based movies. What also doesn't help is that it is laboriously slow as it tries to build up storyline giving us periods of time when nothing really happens.
Having fallen head over heels in love and proposed to a woman called Sally (Andra Martin), expert military diver Lieutenant Kenneth M. Braden (James Garner - Darby's Rangers) is ordered to travel to a base in the Pacific where he not only learns that he is needed for a top secret mission but also that Sally is in fact military, assigned to check whether he is up to the job. Sent aboard the submarine Barracuda under the command of Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O'Brien - The Wild Bunch), they must get as close to a Japanese Island as possible so that Braden can swim assure and photograph some top secret radio codes and hopefully return unharmed.
In a way "Up Periscope" is more than one movie, or in fact more than one storyline crammed into one and as such never manages to master any of them. It starts by giving us an insight into a submarine where on the previous mission a man died, something which is playing on the Commander's conscience to his detriment. Then we have a man of mystery element with Lt. Braden a specialist sent on a top secret mission aboard the submarine. On the way to his mission we get your typical submarine drama with danger and close calls as they come under attack from Japanese planes and ships before then giving us a sort of early James Bond style story with Braden going solo and on his dangerous mission. The trouble is that whilst the storylines should work together to create a thriller they fail because none of them are that well developed and it all ends up feeling segmented.
It also doesn't help that director Gordon Douglas tackles the storyline in a laborious way so that whilst he is trying to build up the story and characters little really happens. It makes it painfully slow as you learn all about Braden, and the woman in his life just before he is sent on the secret mission and you wonder if that laborious build up was worth the time as it ends up being not such a pivotal part of the movie. Being so laborious also means that there are moments of action, such as Braden actually on his mission, which ends up quite dull because to try and make it feel real not much happens.
Thankfully in the midst of all this laborious work there are some good moments, especially aboard the submarine when they come into danger first from Japanese fighter planes then a ship. It maybe all standard stuff with the submarine getting damaged, people injured and on the verge of having to turn back but it's those scenes which deliver the most excitement. And it has to be said that these moments of action are brilliantly shot, the fighter plane shooting at the submarine is quite breath taking as is the sense of tension when whilst submerged oxygen levels start to run dangerously low. It's just a shame that these moments of true excitement and tension end up few and far between.
Strangely whilst Douglas does his best to build up characters, the fact he is working with several storylines means that the characters end up 2 dimensional. James Garner who is perfectly cast as the handsome Braden still ends up a rather 2 dimensional character because we know so little about him. Yes he seems a nice decent guy, a specialist frogman and with a woman he loves back at the main base but beyond that he is 2 dimensional. The same issue affects Edmond O'Brien as Commander Paul Stevenson, yes we know he is hurting from his last mission but the reason for his inner turmoil which affects his demeanour is never explained enough, we are forced to just take it for granted.
Also causing issues is that at times Douglas feels like he needs to lighten the mood with some sailor style comedy which leads us to Alan Hale Jr. as Lt. Pat Malone and the three women he leaves at base. It's amusing, and Hale Jr. does a good job of making it fun but it feels strangely out of place in the movie, making it feel like it's unsure whether it wants to be serious or amusing.
What this all boils down to is that "Up Periscope" is entertaining, with some moments and scenes that are really quite brilliant. But it is also rather slow going as it tries to work several storylines into the one movie without mastering any of them. It means that whilst the likes of James Garner and Edmond O'Brien do their best their characters end up 2 dimensional and combined with the laborious attempts to build storyline ends up making "Up Periscope" less memorable than it should be.