Despite the presence of Frankie Avalon, you won’t find Annette (or many bikinis for that matter) in American International’s OPERATION BIKINI, a 1963 war pic never released on video but now on DVD courtesy of MGM’s manufactured-on-demand program.
1944: The crew of the S240 submarine – commanded by Captain Emmett Carey (Scott Brady, CASTLE OF EVIL) – have been searching the waters of the South Pacific for any sign of the missing S342 (aka the “Gray Fin”) when they receive orders to ferry a UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) headed by Lt. Morgan Hayes (Tab Hunter, DAMN YANKEES). Their mission is to head to the Marshall Islands to destroy the remains of the Gray Fin where they have sunk in the Bikini Atoll, requiring the sub to sail through a hundred miles to enemy waters into an occupied area where guerillas will then direct the UDT team to the wreck. The sub’s crew – among them executive officer Lt. Bill Fortney (Michael Dante, THE NAKED KISS), Lt. Cale (David Landfield, BEACH PARTY), and trouble maker Fennelly (Jim Backus, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD) – are resentful that they have to take themselves out of the action. Hayes himself does not know why they have been sent to blow up the remains of a sunken sub, but Carey informs him that the S342 was carrying a prototype microwave radar system and they want to prevent the Japanese from salvaging it. Tensions rise between the sub crew and the UDT team – which includes short-fused Givens (Gary Crosby, son of Bing), rookie Malzone (Frankie Avalon, THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR), translator Davayo (Aki Aleong, BUCKSIN), and Sherman (Jody McCrea, BEACH BLANKET BINGO) – but they get it all out of their system with a fistfight. When they reach the Bikini Atoll and find the lagoon filled with Japanese ships that have just started the salvaging operation on the sunken sub, Hayes and company find that they will have to team up with the crew of the S240 for a dangerous Plan B.
Although Hunter is the star, the script doesn’t make Brady’s sub captain second fiddle; while this is perhaps more realistic, it doesn’t really make the film a star vehicle for Hunter (he would later be overshadowed by Vincent Price in AIP’s WAR GODS OF THE DEEP), and the rest of the two crews are given little to distinguish them from one another. If anything, the film feels like a vehicle for Frankie Avalon. Although the bulk of the film is in black and white, and fairly sober in tone (apart from some bits of sub-McHALE’S NAVY wise-cracking among the crew), the film segues to rather restrained color for two painful extended dream sequences in which Avalon – who had appeared in AIP’s PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO the previous year – sings “The Girl Back Home” – penned by Russ Faith and Bob Marcucci (also credited as technical advisor for the dream sequences) – about being torn between his girl back home Roxanne (Nancy Dusina) and a sequined siren (Judy Lewis, the daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young). Once Avalon starts singing, you’ll be wishing this was one of those films where the rookie with everything to live for bites it during the climax. Hungarian glamour girl Eva Six gets her introductory role here (she would later appear in the first AIP BEACH PARTY film, as well as the Sinatra vehicle 4 FOR TEXAS), but the film doesn’t really exploit her assets – “Monroe’s face, Mansfield’s body, and Zsa-Zsa’s accent” – here, although she does get to oil up Hunter (after they’ve rolled around in the dirt and belted each other a couple times), but she’s pretty much the obligatory love interest. The contrasty stock footage never comes close to matching the rest of the film, and the climactic underwater maneuvers are a bit too dark to engender any suspense; however, the filmmakers and AIP surprisingly augment some of the stock explosions with relatively grisly inserts of bodies being thrown around on impact. Things end on a humorous and rather jarring note when a narrator (reportedly an uncredited William Shatner) tells us that the Bikini Atoll “would not be heard again until it became synonymous with the greatest destructive force ever known” and the film segues back to color for an end credits beachside bikini romp that would anticipate AIP’s BEACH PARTY series which launched the same year with Avalon in the lead.
OPERATION BIKINI was the directorial debut of editor Anthony Carras, who had started out cutting Roger Corman’s FilmGroup productions like BUCKET OF BLOOD and BEAST FROM THE HAUNTED CAVE before heading with him to AIP and cutting his HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, TALES OF TERROR and X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (as well as Jacques Tourneur’s COMEDY OF TERRORS, which he also produced). He would also produce a couple of the BEACH PARTY movies, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, as well as William Asher’s BIKINI movies, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (he sure had a thing for bikinis) and PAJAMA PARTY. Carras’ only other directorial credit was the neat Mexican-shot American co-production THE FEARMAKER (1971). Carras also edited the film in collaboration with Homer Powell, who went on to supervise the editing of TV shows like BATMAN and BARNEY MILLER. Production designer Daniel Haller provides some impressive, detailed submarine interiors, while fellow Corman-Poe collaborator Marjorie Corso is credited with the wardrobe, and the usually-accomplished AIP in-house composer Les Baxter provides background noise. The film was the last credit for cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton who, like AIP’s Floyd Crosby, had been working since the silent days. Warrenton had previously shot PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO, MASTER OF THE WORLD and THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW for AIP (and before that had gone underwater for SUBMARINE SEAHAWK and THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE).
MGM’s manufactured-on-demand DVD presents the film in a progressive, single-layer, anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer that seems to have undergone little restoration with occasional white specs and a briefly-glimpsed frame tear that would have been painted out in one of the company’s earlier remastering jobs of AIP product. IMDb states a 1.37:1 aspect ratio for this film, although it would likely have been projected at 1.85:1. Presumably MGM’s techs chose the atypical – for Americans – 1.66:1 aspect ratio as the best compromise for HDTV viewing and the heavy use of stock footage which was obviously not shot in mind for widescreen theatrical projection (the stock footage was obviously the reason AIP went with the less commercial black and white filming). The end credits are presented at 1.62:1 but heavily windowboxed with matting on all four sides. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is in good condition. There are absolutely no extras, which is unfortunate because I’d like to have seen how AIP marketed this film. (Eric Cotenas)
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