A spooky submarine voyage occuupies about a third of Stanley Kramer‘s On The Beach (’59). With most of the world covered in radioactive haze and hundreds of millions dead from this, the USS Sawfish, a nuclear sub based in Melbourne and commanded by Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), is ordered to explore the devastation in North America — specifically in Point Barrow, San Francisco and San Diego.

There’s something unsettling and even vaguely horrific about the telescopic periscope footage of the latter two locations. The smoggy-looking air, dead quiet, no humans and everything looking quite tidy and orderly…not even a random corpse or two lying on a sidewalk or a street, not a misparked or abandoned car or commuter bus…nothing amiss.

After the Sawfish arrives in San Francisco a crewman named Ralph Swain (John Meillon) jumps ship and swims ashore. The radiation will kill him within a few days, but Swain is from the San Francisco area and wants to die near his family rather than Down Under.

A few hours later Swain is fishing off a bayside pier, and out of nowhere and right nearby Sawfish surfaces and an unseen Peck, his voice amplified and metallic-sounding, asks Swain how he feels and what’s it like in the city, etc. Swain says it’s quiet and bleak, but imagine the horrific smell of all those hundreds of thousands of bodies…how could anyone stand it? But On The Beach is determined to avoid the gruesome and emphasize the stillness, and something about this strategy gets to you. An eerie feeling.

I’m an especially ardent fan of Giuseppe_Rotunno‘s black-and-white cinematography, which is constantly handsome and well-balanced and curiously soothing for that. Rotunno’s credits include Fellini Satyricon, Five Days One Summer, Carnal Knowledge, Wolf and All That Jazz.