Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Deep (EMI, Casablanca, Columbia, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d stumbled on in my backlog of DVD’s: The Deep, a 1977 production of Columbia Pictures in association with two now-defunct record companies, EMI and Casablanca (the latter got that name from the coincidence of its president being named Neil Bogart, though he was no relation to the Casablanca star, and its biggest acts were Donna Summer and KISS). The Deep began life as a novel by Peter Benchley, who had just had a huge success with his book Jaws — and with the film of Jaws finally surpassing Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time, it’s no surprise that there was a fierce bidding war for the movie rights to The Deep and the rights were won by Peter Guber, who had just stepped down as Columbia studio head to become an independent producer for the company. The Deep was conceived at the height of the hype surrounding the “Bermuda Triangle,” the location in the Caribbean where an unusually high number of ships had sunk and planes had crashed, and books were written claiming there was some supernatural element involved (while other books were written attempting to debunk those). Peter Benchley obviously had that in mind when he set The Deep on and just off the coast of Bermuda, since the intrigue revolves around the preposterous assumption that three ships sank just off Bermuda, two early 18th century sailing vessels and a World War II submarine, and they all happened to land just on top of each other underwater. A young American (we presume) couple, David Sanders (Nick Nolte, five years after People magazine named him “The Sexiest Man Alive” and with his looks still relatively intact) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset, who in the opening scene is shown diving underwater wearing just a white T-shirt, black swim trunks and SCUBA gear; the way the shirt clings to her while wet made it clear she wasn’t wearing a bra, and you could see so much of her nipples, her aureoles and the luscious mounds of flesh connecting these to her body that posters of her that way became iconic items on the dorm walls of young straight college boys the way posters of Racquel Welch in her ultra-revealing prehistoric bikini in One Million Years, B.C. had a decade earlier), are diving for buried treasure off the Bermuda coast when they stumble on the three conjoined wrecks: a Spanish flagship from 1714, a French freighter that sailed with the Spanish fleet as part of what would later be called a convoy but which itself sank a year later, and a World War II submarine. The French freighter contained a special collection of jewels made for King Philip of Spain (which one? The most famous one, Philip II, reigned in the late 1500’s and sent the Spanish Armada to England) to impress Elizabeth Farnese, the Duchess of Parma, whom he wanted to marry, but like the Maltese falcon the treasure never reached Spain. 

The sub has its own treasure: thousands of ampules of medical-grade morphine which could easily be refined into pure heroin, and which is what the drug cartel headed by Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is after — though they’re the sort of freewheeling criminal enterprise that will deal in anything as long as it will make them money and so they’re attracted to the idea of Spanish gold even though all they will do with the Duchess of Parma’s treasure is melt it down and sell it as ordinary gold, pearls and whatnot. To recover the treasure and establish its provenance David and Gail call on Romer Treece (Robert Shaw, whose presence in the cast as the old-salt owner of a decaying but still serviceable boat brings this movie even closer to Jaws), who’s written several books on the sunken Spanish treasures around Bermuda and owns a copy of the Havana Manifest, supposedly a listing of all the ships that sailed to and from Spain in the era of the conquistadores. There are a lot of things annoying about The Deep, among them the fact that though it was made in 1977 (and is therefore older than Citizen Kane and Casablanca were when I first saw them) it seems like a modern movie: O.K. action sequences and boring plot exposition scenes between them. It doesn’t help that, even though Peter Benchley co-wrote the script with Tracy Keenan Wynn, the plot really doesn’t make sense — we’re lurched around from menace to menace with little or no provocation — and it also doesn’t help that the director, Peter Yates, is a competent filmmaker but hardly in Steven Spielberg’s league fur suspense or thrills. There are also nods to Benchley’s previous success in the appearance of a giant white sea creature (we’re told it’s an unusually large moray eel) that menaces the characters, or the attempt of Cloche and his men (one really off-putting aspect of this film is its racism: all the good guys are white and all the bad guys — except Adam Coffin [Eli Wallach], one of Treece’s associates who sells him out — are Black) to kill Our Heroes by throwing bloody meat into the water as chum to attract, you guessed it, sharks. 

I remember seeing it when it first came out at a press screening (I was working for a magazine that ordinarily would have been too small to get free movie tickets, but a major firm doing publicity for movies in San Francisco had its office and its screening room in the same building as our office, so we got in) and remembering nothing about it but how hot Jacqueline Bisset looked in her clingy T-shirt underwater. Now I can see why: aside from some quite beautiful underwater photography the film really has little or nothing to offer — it’s not actively bad but it’s not very good either. Robert Shaw’s overacting has been criticized, but a) after Jaws this was how audiences expected Shaw to act, especially in a story by Peter Benchley; and b) his overacting at least helps to make up for the non-acting of Nolte and Bisset, who seem to be doing nothing more than hurling their hot bods at the camera and letting their physiques do their acting for them. It also doesn’t help that Nolte is afflicted with one of those horrible pageboy haircuts and matching moustaches that were all the rage in 1977, or that Bisset sometimes speaks in an American accent, sometimes in a British one and sometimes in a mishmash of the two that renders much of her dialogue virtually unintelligible. Add to that a DVD so old it offered only a 4:3 pan-and-scan aspect ratio version of the film, and an image quality so below what we expect from DVD’s of more recent films that early on Charles was saying it looked like an download, and The Deep emerges (or should I say submerges?) as a viewing experience that isn’t exactly unpleasant (although the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew could have had a blast with this film!) but isn’t all that memorable or entertaining either.