Torrid, tempestuous Irena…the spark that turned the tropics into a blazing cauldron of passions!
If you look at the promotional materials for the film Fire Down Below, you’ll see some pretty big names in the cast. Rita Hayworth, coming off her second Hollywood hiatus, takes top billing. This is followed by Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, respectively. Fire up the film and you’ll see a lot more talent in front of the camera, including Herbert Lom and Bernard Lee. There’s another interesting name listed among the producers- Albert R. Broccoli.
So expectations are high given what you see in terms of talent with the opening shots start. Mitchum and Lemon are buddies who share ownership in a small boat which ferries cargo around the Caribbean. Mostly it seems to be legal, but it is clear that they dabble in more illicit cargo when the rewards are there for the taking. Such is the situation here, as at the beginning of the picture they’re approached to take an Eastern European woman with a questionable past (Hayworth) down to Trinidad.
The first forty-five minutes or so of the picture is this journey, where of course Hayworth is presented as a bit of a fish out of water with her fancy shoes and dresses, contrasted against the dinginess of a small working boat. Lemon falls for her and Mitchum is his usually cynical self in questioning her background, but it is clear he’s got an attraction to her too.
While Lemon’s romance with her seems lighthearted and almost insincere, Mitchum’s few scenes with her during this part of the film are brooding and almost menacing. During one of the few really promising scenes of the picture is with the two top leads watching Mardi Gras. The conversation becomes tense and snarky, ending only when Hayworth heads into the crowd for what can only be termed an excessively awkward dance among the revelers.
After this point, Hayworth is dropped at her destination, but Lemon announces his decision to disembark with her. This of course strains the relationship further between Lemon and Mitchum: it is broken completely when Lemon comes around later to announce that he’s decided to marry her. In a really odd musical choice, Mitchum the drunken rogue is cranking up Mozart on the phonograph and teasing that “Beethoven’s Ninth is up next.” Would have been a nice (if perhaps overly commercial touch) if they’d cut in Mitchum’s calypso record, which he recorded during the filming.
Lemon offers to share a final illegal shipment with Mitchum, who declines with implied indifference. Lemon takes the deal, but mid-operation the Coast Guard appear, having been tipped off by a scorned Mitchum. He abandons ship and swims for shore to avoid the authorities.
At this point the movie abruptly stops, then restarts in a completely different vein. It is literally almost as if reels from another picture got dropped in. Mitchum and Hayworth are gone- for almost forty-five minutes. Instead of the odd love triangle- which though a bit slow as a storyline was finally starting to show life- we are given an entirely different tale. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in Fire Down Below, as the audience is snapped from one story and dropped into another one.
Now Lemon is signed onto a Greek freighter on his way back to Trinidad, which promptly rams into another ship in the harbor, leaving him trapped under some beams in the bow. The next forty minutes or so are the harbormaster (Herbert Lom) and resident physician (Bernard Lee) work to both save the ship and the entrapped Lemon. You see there is also a smoldering fire in the rear holds of the ship which are getting dangerously close to a shipment of explosive nitrates.
Finally, with hope gone and the final reel rolling, the ship (still afire and with Lemon still in the bow hold) is pushed offshore to explode away from the shore. At the last moment Mitchum appears at the behest of the good doctor and boards the ship to talk Lemon into hopefully permitting a last moment amputation of his legs- which would free him from the soon to be wreck. As the ship begins to go up, a lucky explosion frees Lemon and all ends well.
For that should have worked, Fire Down Below is a bit of a letdown. Mitchum and Hayworth both look tired and bored with the material, and Hayworth’s numerous lines of “being passed around” and the like come too close to her personal situation to be repeated so many times. The dance sequence, assuredly geared to highlight her and spawn a comeback for her, fails rather miserably. After the first half of the film, she literally disappears for all but the last scenes, where she has perhaps a mere four lines.
Mitchum fares little better, but does have two very good scenes: one, the aforementioned sequence at Mardi Gras, and the second being the final sequence with Lemon on the doomed ship. These scenes sparkle and are nearly electric, but sadly last for only a few minutes. Just when his character starts to develop some momentum he too is shelved with Hayworth on the back shelf.
That leaves Jack Lemon, who always seemed to fit best in light comedy, which this definitely is not. It seems odd today that the third lead takes over the picture at the halfway point to the complete exclusion of the headliners. Though he tries here, perhaps he is trying a bit too much as his joviality and cheerfulness seem rather at odds both with the company he keeps (the characters of both Hayworth and Mitchum are both overly dour), and the situation at hand.
Outside of some interesting use of the cast and the dramatic shift at the midway point, we also have the climactic escape. Though Lemon is helplessly pinned and the ship is about to blow, there is never any real sense of urgency on screen, which translates into the same flippancy with the audience.
Though few would call it a great picture, the unique casting makes it of some interest. You just have to pick which part of the film you will like!