Undersea Girl (1957)

Rating: Sea-minus. No, sea-riously!

Dir: John Peyser
Star: Mara Corday, Pat Conway, Dan Seymour, Florence Marly

Putting aside the water-related puns for a moment, it’s striking to be reminder that there was a time when blurry underwater footage was deemed novel enough to make your movie around. SCUBA was still a relative novelty at this point, having only hit the market a decade or so earlier. The sight of people swimming ponderously around or, better yet, engaging in slow-motion fisticuffs must have thrilled audiences at the time. To the modern viewer, it’s probably the least interesting thing about this B-movie. Inevitably, it fails to live up to anything like the poster, not least by being filmed in flat monochrome rather than the lurid colour promised by the artwork.

The story is actually quite good. Just after the war, a stash of navy money went down with a ship, and salvage efforts apparently proved futile. Now, bills from the consignment are turning up in California, both in the pockets of a drunk, and on the body of a dead tuna fisherman found by scuba-diving journalist, Valerie Hudson (Corday). The Navy send an investigator, Lt. Brad Chase  (Conway), to help with inquiries – wouldn’t you know it, he turns out to be an old flame of Valerie’s, and the spark is still there. He initially refuses to explain what’s going on, but the relentless (or whiny, if you prefer) Valerie won’t let it go. As further dead bodies accumulate (top), they join forces to investigate, only for Valerie to be abducted by the villains.

Despite her claims to be independent and capable of taking care of herself Valerie clearly is not. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than at the end, where Brad engages in a bout of manly fisticuffs with the head of the criminals, while Val literally stands there, clutching her hand-bag and being absolutely useless, even by the low standards of fifties femininity. She also ends up having to be rescued when she and her photographer go diving in search of the loot, Brad coming to their aid and stabbing a inquisitive shark to death. But given the title, she spends much more of the time on dry land, first bickering, and then making kissy-face, with our square-jawed hero.

If you cut out the sluggish soggy stuff, there’s not much more than an hour of content. In some ways, it feels like an extended episode of something like Dragnet – a show directly referenced at one point in the dialogue here. It offers a mix of police procedural and personal banter, but only occasionally gets out of second gear in either department. Perhaps the most interesting character is gang moll Leila Graham (Marly), who holds her own on the villainous side, and never seems to be called to account for her crimes. I was hoping for a cat-fight between her and Valerie, but it never comes close to materializing. Given the latter’s inaction at the end, it wouldn’t have been much of a contest.