“The Enemy Below” does not exactly get up and go, not in the precise term of the meaning, taking several sequences to establish life aboard the American destroyer USS Haynes in the midst of WWII, before then getting up and going. And once it goes, boy, does it go, non-stop, with the destroyer squaring off against a U-Boat, the two ships and the two captains desperately trying to get the drop on the other, where the slightest miscalculation could yield doom. That's not to say that “The Enemy Below”, once it gets going, is mindless either. Far from it, as director Dick Powell takes great care to impart a few ideas about what war means, or what war does not mean.
Robert Mitchum is Lt. Commander Murrell, who has just been placed in charge of the USS Haynes, which makes the men a little antsy, wondering what this guy is all about, a means to establish onboard conflict, or thereabouts. But this, frankly, is more or less forgotten about the minute Murrell strolls on camera when the U-Boat is spotted. Mitchum, after all, is Mitchum, which is to say he oozes laconic command, disinterested and engaged at once, possessing a peerless ability to just sort of show up and through his deep voice and hard-nosed manner instantly establish that, yeah, he’s been around the block. It’s no wonder his men fall in line almost immediately, especially when he displays a few keen tactical moves to get the upper hand on their German enemies beneath the sea.
The titular enemy below, meanwhile, is Kapitän von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens), a wily old fox who is just desperately trying to get home. In the manner of the U-Boat's intention as an underwater surprise, we are not really introduced to von Stolberg, not exactly, as he just sort of appears in the midst of captaining his vessel as soon as they show up on American radar. Then, however, Powell peels back to establish that while von Stolberg is at the disposal of the Nazis, he is not necessarily a sympathizer, evinced in a speech to his second in command but, even better, in a moment when some too eager subordinate is seen reading Mein Kampf and von Stolberg can only shake his head.
This was, after all, 1957, not 1942 and so merely delivering a propagandist tale of Nazi buffoons was no longer strictly necessary. Indeed, “The Enemy Below” becomes something else. Conspicuously no one else is ever seen in “The Enemy Below.” Hitler and Roosevelt could not be further away. It is just the crew of the Haynes and the crew of the U-Boat. More to the point, it just Murrell and von Stolberg, underscored by how Powell in simply cutting back and forth between close-ups of each Captain as if they really are in one another’s heads. Battles may begin in the name of something bigger, and after these battles over the result may be far-reaching, but in the moment, it is merely boat v boat, winners live and losers die. Not that everyone dies here, which is how “The Enemy Below” becomes ennobling. Your enemy may not be your friend, but that does not necessarily mean he’s not human.