December 8, 2015
Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge. Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here).
Under Pressure was based on the novel Sand Hog by Frank G. Fowler and Edward J. Doherty, first published serially in Argosy magazine. Fowler helped dig the Holland Tunnel, and adapted his experiences into the book. Once Sand Hog was optioned by Fox, Fowler changed his name to Borden Chase (after the milk and the bank) and went on to a prolific career as a Western screenwriter (Red River, Winchester ’73, Vera Cruz). But Chase received his first script credit on Under Pressure, along with co-writers Noel Pierce and Lester Cole (and an uncredited polish job by Billy Wilder).
The story follows Jumbo (McLaglen) and Shocker (Lowe) as they lead the Brooklyn team in a tunnel digging race against the Manhattan scalawags fronted by Nipper Moran (Charles Bickford). Whoever fights their way into the opposite team’s tunnel wins $500. Newspaper gal Pat (Florence Rice) is sick of covering horse shows, so ditches the society pages and attempts to report on the feats and follies of the Sand Hogs. Her first pitch is denied by an uppity Manhattan editor, who says, right before firing her: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those rural editors over in Brooklyn didn’t fall for your yarn.” They did, and Pat gets the cover story she so desired. The Sand Hogs’ violent, brutish and short lives make for good circulation, but Pat starts to become part of their family. The mother would be Amelia Hardcastle, the owner of the favored Sand Hogs bar, and the one who keeps the peace in the hot-headed profession. But even she can’t heal the macho head games played by Jumbo and Shocker, who butt heads over the leadership of the Brooklyn Sand Hogs as well as the affections of Pat.
Instead of confessing their feelings they go back to their dark holes and dig, or else they are stuck in the decompression chamber which eases them back into the above ground oxygen flow. Their whole job is enclosed, trapped and controlled. One of the central images is the bubbling of water that indicates a healthy oxygen flow underneath. Amelia can read this bubbling like a novel, she can tell when there’s a fire or a containment leak based on the shape and intensity of the burble. This bubble is far more expressive than Jumbo and Shocker, who prefer to express themselves in grimaces and put-downs.
The first thing Walsh shows before panning down some miniatures into the dank tunnel set (“a huge tube, nearly 500 feet long and seventeen feet in diameter, an exact replica of a vehicle tunnel during construction, was copied as a set from the Fulton Street tunnel in New York, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan” – AFI Catalog), made up of wrought iron and glistening torsos . The biggest torso belongs to Jumbo, and Vincent McLaglen plays him with his usual aw shucks bravado, a gentle giant who bellows out of insecurity, he’s puffed up mainly with hot air. Walsh had previously worked with McLaglen on What Price Glory, and in his autobiography described McLaglen as “a great broth of a man and a fine actor who once fought Jack Johnson.” Edmund Lowe was “a matinee-idol type who was unpredictably able to transform himself”. He has an arch tone to his theatrical voice that fits the character of a know-it-all, while McLaglen bellows like a cow being led to the slaughter. Both men need each other to get through this job alive, as they provide a balance, one that keeps the Brooklyn Sand Hogs’ tunnel from collapsing.
Walsh finished shooting the film in under a month, finishing in October of 1934. But according to the notes in the AFI Catalog, re-shoots were ordered from December 3rd – 31st, with Walsh replaced by Irving Cummings. These were extensive and expensive, costing Fox an additional $200,000. Pat was originally played by Grace Bradley in the version Walsh shot, but her footage was cut and she was replaced by Florence Rice. So all of the scenes with the Pat character were replaced. It is unclear why Bradley provoked such an extreme reaction from Fox, but it means the surviving Under Pressure is only half of a Walsh movie. But it remains 100% a McLaglen and Lowe film, and their affectionate bravado and bluster carry through the movie.
The movie was dismissed as another McLaglen-Lowe programmer, with the New York Times writing, “vehicles which the studio litterateurs arrange for the hulking needs of Victor McLaglen & Edmund Lowe are never notable for their IQ count.” Contemporary sources like Walsh’s biographer Marilyn Ann Moss dismiss it as “undistinguished”. But this film has a raw energy and a raging visual libido, an extended metaphor for sexual repression, with those energies only released when the two competing tunnel shafts touch in the middle and the Jumbo-Moran fistfight commences. Howard Hawks often said that A Girl in Every Port was a love story between two men, and the same applies to Under Pressure. Jumbo and Shocker care for each other, but they can only express it in the depths underneath the city.