**/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B
starring Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Eli Wallach
screenplay by Peter Benchley and Tracy Keenan Wynn, based on Benchley's novel
directed by Peter Yates
by Bryant Frazer English cinematographer Christopher Challis got his start working on newsreels and travelogues before getting a gig with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's production company, The Archers. There, he worked on a team with the great Jack Cardiff before serving as the DP on The Tales of Hoffmann, a lush Technicolor envisioning of the Jacques Offenbach opera. While Challis isn't among the best-known directors of photography, his technical facility kept him in demand for the next 40 years. He shot films for Stanley Donen, Carol Reed, and Blake Edwards, but there may have been no movie where his sense of colour and light was more critical than on The Deep. Rushed into production at Columbia Pictures to capitalize on the success of Jaws, another seafaring adventure based on a Peter Benchley novel, The Deep has a humdrum story, generally uncommitted performances, and a phoney Moray eel (nicknamed "Percy" on set) that gives the much-maligned mechanical shark "Bruce" from Jaws a run for its money in the department of unconvincing animal attacks. Yet the quality of the imagery is something else.
Not only does The Deep feature impressively-captured widescreen vistas of its Bermuda island setting--shooting took place partly in the authentic locations, as well as amid the wreckage of the RMS Rhone in the British Virgin Islands and in Australia--but Challis also takes the Panavision camera underwater, where he strove to tackle lighting situations below the surface the same way he'd approach them above. The results are fairly engaging; the many scuba-diving treasure-hunting scenes in The Deep were filmed on location rather than in a tank, and Challis's submerged but uncompromised lensing makes them all the more impressive. Even today, after years of documentary camerawork in HD have made stunning nature photography seem almost de rigueur, there's a startling beauty to some of these images, like the vivid two-shot seen underneath the opening credits in which an improbably expressive spiky fish looks quite pleased to share screen space with co-star Jacqueline Bisset.
Speaking of Bisset, many filmgoers will remember The Deep primarily for that lengthy opening dive sequence and the following scene where she dries off in a boat with co-star Nick Nolte. A 32-year-old English beauty with a va-va-voom figure, Bisset dives and resurfaces wearing nothing but black swim trunks and a white T-shirt that goes nearly transparent around her breasts. It's not merely a relic of a time when near-nudity could be plentiful in a PG-rated film, but a historical record: this particular cultural touchstone is said to be responsible for ushering in the enduring popularity of the wet-T-shirt contest. (You may applaud or boo, however you see fit.) In his memoir Are They Really So Awful?: A Cameraman's Chronicle, Challis recalls the single-mindedness producer Peter Guber exhibited in this regard. Guber went so far as to commission the design of a special scuba mask that would allow Bisset's face to be seen more clearly in the aforementioned peek-a-boo moments. Sadly, he writes, the result was a mask that collapsed against her nose, "transforming her beauty into a close resemblance of a retired and unsuccessful boxer." Bisset was finally outfitted with a conventional mask instead, but Guber got the effect he was hoping for. "The exhibitors went out of their minds when they saw Jackie," he said, according to the Nancy Griggin and Kim Masters book Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, recalling a screening of the first ten minutes of the film for theatre owners. "That T-shirt made me a rich man." Indeed, The Deep was the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1977.
That's a very strong performance for a completely routine property. Contemporary viewers will find the story to unfold unusually slowly, as young lovers Gail Berke (Bisset) and David Sanders (a shaggy, moustachioed Nick Nolte, in his first major starring role), vacationing in Bermuda, stumble across the wreckage of the Goliath, a World War II-era munitions freighter laden with vials of medicinal morphine and a variety of more traditional booty. Word of their incongruous score spreads around the island, and crusty celebrity treasure-hunter Romer Treece (Robert Shaw) decides to help them as Haitian drug dealer Cloche (Louis Gossett Jr.) embarks on a campaign of violence and intimidation to get at the goods. Nolte is OK in a part that affords him very little to build a character from, Robert Shaw does a dialled-down version of his salty dog Quint from Jaws, and the great character actor Eli Wallach appears in a supporting role as an old drunk who plays both sides. And while Gossett is playing a crudely stereotyped villain, there's a light in his eyes that helped him leverage this gig into a decent Hollywood career.
But Bisset couldn't capitalize on her exposure. The film may have raised her profile for U.S. audiences, but it relegates her character twice to damsel-in-distress status, first when she's strip-searched by Cloche and his men and later when, left alone as her boyfriend goes asea with Treece, her quivering, scantily-clad body is smeared with chicken blood by hotel-room invaders conducting voodoo booga-booga. Exploitation-style scenes can have a sexy charge, yet here it just feels like somebody's leering. She does go on some more dives later in the film, and at least she's allowed to puzzle out some of the mysteries behind the wreck of the Goliath--but this is the kind of man's movie where men make manly declarations like (and I do quote), "I feel things so I do them. That's just the way I am!" Anyway, Bisset's newfound status as a sex symbol didn't do much for her career: the following year she was impersonating Jackie Onassis in The Greek Tycoon, and it's really been downhill from there.
For his part, though he doesn't exactly top the gritty, straightahead car chase that anchors the otherwise routine Bullitt, director Peter Yates revs up a few action set-pieces, such as a tense moment early on when scooter-riding Berke and Sanders are driven off the road by a big truck, a lengthy shark attack, and an explosive finale. Unfortunately, Yates doesn't bring anything like the energy and seafaring romanticism Steven Spielberg applied to Jaws two years before. If the first 50 or 60 minutes of the film now qualify as an entertaining nostalgia trip, The Deep gets repetitive and downright silly as it goes on, and not even a final-reel Moray eel attack can liven things up. At 124 minutes, it's a crashing, splashing bore.
Believe it or not, there's a longer version of this thing floating around, a "special edition" that runs three hours. The studio has mercifully chosen not to restore that extended cut on The Deep's latest home video release, although the new Blu-ray Disc is supplemented with about 21 minutes' worth of those extra scenes. (Each excerpt wastes a few seconds on a title card at the end asserting copyright in the clips, etc.) The content is mainly dialogue and exposition. There's a three-minute prologue that shows the original crew of the Goliath running aground back in the day, as well as a six-minute scene of Berke and Sanders having a bedtime conversation. (Here Bisset exposes most of one breast, leading the attentive viewer to wonder why the shot didn't make Guber's final cut.) Two more restorations deal with the history between Treece and Cloche, whom it turns out Treece blames for the death of his wife, Priscilla. Another bit shows Sanders and Treece coming up after a dive in the wreckage, whereupon Sanders blurts out--hilariously, as if he's filling dead air in a piece of botched improv theatre or vamping for the blooper reel--"That's the biggest Moray eel I ever saw! There were a lot of ampules down there, weren't there?!" These additional scenes are encoded in MPEG-2 HD, with two-channel Dolby Digital sound running at 192 kbps.
Also included on the BD is "The Making of The Deep" (49 mins.), a vintage CBS Special Presentation documenting the production. While the piece has a low-definition look to match its provenance, Sony have thoughtfully upres'd the picture to 1080i before encoding it in MPEG-2. The result looks, one guesses, about as good as late-1970s archival material can--it's still a stark reminder of how very far home-video quality has come in these last 30 years. Hosted and narrated by Shaw himself, the special offers actor interviews, lots of B-roll footage, the tale of an apparent close call Nolte had on set, and a glimpse of the scale model that shares screen time with Percy the eel. It would be nice to see a fresh transfer of the 16mm documentary footage, but that's almost certainly too much to ask. What we've got is a nice time capsule that kicks off with the era's familiar CBS Special Presentation show opener.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
As far as the actual movie goes, the 1080p picture is nothing if not eye-catching. The 2.40:1 anamorphic Panavision image is correctly letterboxed inside the native 16x9 HDTV frame. There's not a great amount of fine detail on display, but that could be a product of the lenses used or the film stock of the period. If grain-reduction techniques were applied, they're not obtrusive--the picture is still somewhat noisy, and the actors' skin lacks the waxiness often associated with overzealous noise-reduction. (The grain has a slightly more natural appearance in exterior daylight shots than in darker scenes, leading me to wonder if it was tweaked for the latter.) What really counts, though, is that the colours are unusually rich. Splashes of red, not to mention the many shades of blue water, are saturated to a degree that almost suggests true Technicolor. I've never seen a 35mm print of The Deep, so it's impossible for me to say whether this is an accurate representation of the film, but the cinematographer's experience with Technicolor photography suggests the saturation could well be intentional, if a bit unnatural. (Although Challis is alive and well, I doubt he was consulted during the film-to-video transfer process.) Still, it's gorgeous. Were I at the controls I might back off on the reds a little, but they do look great in HD, with none of the blooming or smearing that can plague NTSC. The presentation is encoded using AVC (MPEG-4) and takes up about 30.69 GB on a BD-50 disc.
Finally, the sound is encoded in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in English, French, and Portuguese options; I was listening to the 640 kbps core. (A Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also available.) The audio is thoroughly adequate but unexceptional, boasting a fairly thin soundfield by today's standards. (The film debuted in 1977, just as Star Wars was revolutionizing movie sound with a wide release in Dolby Stereo.) The bass is loud but not very deep, and the underwater ambiance that fills the surround channels in the diving scenes is all midrange. The rear channels get a workout, too, whenever John Barry's score wells up, filling the surrounds with its instrumentation. I don't normally have any problem with the broad dynamic range of 5.1 mixes, but I kept finding myself cranking up the volume in order to hear dialogue clearly, then cranking it back down again for the action scenes. Despite being another early four-track Dolby release, theatres were slow to adapt and so most moviegoers likely heard a specially-prepared mono mix. It would have been nice, then, if Sony had found the space to include a lossless mono soundtrack herein. For what it's worth, the soundstage during the diving-through-the-wreck scenes is effective, adding creaks, rumbles, bubbling water, and other noises to an enveloping aural environment, and it may have helped point the way for later, claustrophobic multi-channel sound design on films like Das Boot and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. HiDef previews for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the original, striking theatrical trailer, bizarrely left off that film's own BD), Secret Window, The Dark Crystal, The Da Vinci Code, and Rocky Balboa round out the platter. Originally published: July 8, 2009.