Fire Down Below
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With publicity materials crowing, "3 of the biggest in 1 of the best!" Fire Down Below swept into theatres in 1957, heralding the return of Rita Hayworth after an almost four-year absence from films. Joining Hayworth was Hollywood's "bad boy" Robert Mitchum and then-rising star Jack Lemmon. A tropical tale of a torrid love triangle, Fire Down Below pitted Mitchum against Lemmon for the prize of Hayworth, playing yet again the sensuous temptress. Behind the scenes, however, crumbling marriages, firestorm remarks, and tabloid headlines set the stage for more excitement than the film itself!
Hayworth was a recent divorcee from her fourth marriage to singer Dick Haymes (her husbands in chronological order were Eddie Judson, Orson Welles, Prince Aly Khan, and Haymes). This is, after all, the woman who once mused, "What surprises me in life are not the marriages that fail, but the marriages that succeed." To add to her woes, her lawsuit against Columbia Pictures to release her from her film contract had just been thrown out of court. She finally agreed to do two more pictures for the studio for a combined $300,000 - a significant cut from her heyday pay, but with her finances embroiled in pending litigation with husband #2, Orson Welles, it was still a good paycheck. But until Columbia found a suitable vehicle for her, Rita sought refuge in Europe, preferring the relative anonymity it offered compared to America.
Producers Irving Allen and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (best known for the James Bond film franchise) had originally wanted Ava Gardner for the lead role, but she turned it down. Screenwriter Irwin Shaw then suggested Hayworth for the role, and director Robert Parrish was charged with tracking the AWOL actress down. With the help of mutual friend Art Buchwald, Parrish found her at a hotel in Paris and convinced her to take the role. Parrish, a successful film editor turned director, was keen to work with Hayworth, observing, "She had a unique beauty, just the structure of her face was exciting to look at." Location work began in Trinidad, and Hayworth soon joined Lemmon and Mitchum on the journey.
Things got off to a flying start as soon as the plane landed; on the tarmac, someone asked Mitchum what he had in his luggage. He sarcastically declared, "two kilos of marijuana," practically setting off an international incident. From the Don Widener bio Lemmon, Jack recalled, "He damned near caused a riot. We were practically barricaded in our rooms for three days. The State Department got into the act and there was talk of throwing us off the island. Old Mitch couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. He said, 'Don't these people have a sense of humor?'" It was, however, only the beginning of Mitchum's hijinks.
Lemmon's marriage to Cynthia Stone was ending, and Mitchum was determined to show Jack a good time on the island. He soon introduced his friend to an attractive island girl and the two quickly hit it off. When Lemmon announced his intention to take his new girlfriend to a formal dinner at the governor's mansion, however, Mitchum decided to tell him the truth about the woman's dubious reputation, declaring, "She screwed the entire U.S. Navy!" Lemmon pondered this for a while, and then retorted, "The hell with it. That's their problem. She's my girl, now."
When filming moved to Tobago, the entire cast and crew lived aboard a chartered freighter. The days quickly became tedious, with the arrival of the daily mail the certified highlight. As Mitchum's bio Baby, I Don't Care, by Lee Server, explains, "The isolated, bored group then spent an hour or two sprawled about the vessel reading their forwarded letters, advertisements, and out-of-date copies of Variety and the Times of London. Rita Hayworth's mail, rerouted from Europe, New York, and Los Angeles, arrived all at once in a huge canvas sack and sat untouched. One day Lemmon and Parrish came upon Hayworth sitting by the railing, tearing up the unread mail piece by piece and tossing it into the sea. 'Rita, what in the hell are you doing?' they screamed. 'Aren't you going to open any of it? There may be checks inside!' Hayworth shrugged, smiling ruefully, 'There's bound to be more trouble than money.'"
Hayworth's melancholy only intensified when reviled studio boss Harry Cohn sent one of his foot soldiers to keep tabs on her. According to Server in his Mitchum biography, "Mitchum immediately began calling him 'Spy,' as in, 'Hello, Spy,' 'Out of my way, Spy.' The man was well known to Hayworth from her years at the studio, and she treated him like the plague and fell into an even deeper despondency." Mitchum felt protective towards the vulnerable actress; Parrish's wife Kathie recalled of the actor, "He described her as a rather lost little girl. She wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and everyone took her for something. But Mitch and Jack and my husband loved her, and they were very sweet with her." Their bond of friendship endured past filming; when Rita married a fifth time in 1958 (producer James Hill), she invited all three men to her wedding.
With all of the drama swirling about, it was easy to forget a film was being made! After location filming wrapped, the company traveled on to London to finish up with the interior shots and begin post production. The original cut of Fire Down Below began with the last scene presented first as one long flashback, eventually returning to the present in the final frames. The studio, however, reedited the footage, placing everything in chronological order much to Parrish's consternation. As a result, critics noted an element of disconnect and stiltedness when reviewing Fire Down Below, obviously due to its significant retooling.
The experience of Fire Down Below brought out the hidden talents of the stars. Lemmon ended up composing a harmonica theme used in the film, and Mitchum really got into the local music scene, hanging out at live shows and snapping up every record he could find. But he wasn't done yet: a few months before the film opened, he released his own record of island tunes, Calypso Is Like So. In 1995, the album was remastered, reissued, and enjoys a popular following today.
Producer: Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli, Ronald Kinnoch
Director: Robert Parrish
Screenplay: Max Catto (novel), Irwin Shaw
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Art Direction: Syd Cain
Music: Arthur Benjamin, Vivian Comma, Douglas Gamley, Kenneth V. Jones, Jack Lemmon
Cast: Rita Hayworth (Irena), Robert Mitchum (Felix Bowers), Jack Lemmon (Tony), Herbert Lom (Harbor Master), Bonar Colleano (Lt. Sellars), Bernard Lee (Dr. Sam Blake).
by Eleanor Quin