Based on my experiences with The Fighting 69th a couple of days ago, I wasn't really expecting much from Action in the North Atlantic. And it's far from a perfect film - it's very episodic, and the female characters are marginalised to the point of meaninglessness. But apart from that, it's actually surprisingly entertaining.
Humphrey Bogart is in top form as Joe Rossi, a First Mate on a cargo ship during World War 2. He grumbles and growls and grimaces with his usual aplomb. The dialogue he says is often ridiculous in that hyper-macho hyper-stylised Hollywood tough guy vernacular that was so popular in the forties. Or rather, I should say that his dialogue would often be ridiculous, if it wasn't said by Humphrey Bogart, who seems to have an innate ability to pull that stuff off and still look like a total badass.
Most of the other actors are pretty bland (with the notable exception of Alan Hale), but Bogart has enough charisma and soiled charmed for them all. And what the film lacks in ensemble work, it more than makes up for in some really good action sequences, very well handled by the director, Lloyd Bacon.
One interesting element of the film is the way that it totally dehumanises the Nazis. It's not surprising that it does this, but it is interesting how the American Merchant Marines are depicted as all-too-human - slouching, grime on their faces, shirts unbuttoned, hats askew. Whereas the Nazis are all robots - they speak in an incomprehensible (unsubtitled German) monotone, they stand perfectly straight, their uniforms are immaculately clean. The only time the Nazis ever feel any emotions is in moments of violence - either cheering in victory when an American ship is sunk, or screaming in terror as their sub fills with water. What's particularly interesting about this is the way that the film is such a glorification of the US Merchant Marines, that it actually chooses to dehumanise the US Navy in the same way. Our first introduction to the Navy is a clean, Spartan classroom, filled with immaculate uniforms being worn by faceless drones - they have uniformly perfect posture, clean faces, good hair. And it's only when the Merchant Marines teach the Navy boys how to be proper Americans, that they become depicted as humans.