Saturday 18 October 2014

Lovely and shallow… The Deep (1977)

I remember this being viewed as some kind of follow up to the wide-screen horror of Jaws… same writer (Peter Benchley), same sea-sensibilities and advanced sub-aquatic film techniques… the same Robert Shaw. I didn’t see it at the time – I was too young to have seen Jaws but I sneaked in anyway – and have somehow avoided it over the ensuing decades put off by its lukewarm reputation. Did I miss much?

There are some obvious highlights and I’ll get to Jacqueline Bisset’s wet t-shirt in a minute… but, viewed on a modern big screen TV the film looks superb, huge wide-angled shots of Bermuda blue sea and white sand mixed with some genuinely stunning underwater footage: 70’s cinematography of the highest order from Christopher Challis and director Peter Yates.

You feel placed into the centre of these beautiful vistas and the colours are vibrant and richly-textured creating a hyper-reality you know from your best holidays. But there’s also vulnerability from this sensorial over-loading and Yates does well in maintaining unease throughout the film. It’s not quite the fear of sudden shark attack but there are human monsters at work even if they do move in mysterious and unfathomable ways…

Bermuda as far as the eye can see...
The underwater shots offer the highest levels of this sub-acute (submerged) anxiety as the characters exist in a state of danger from the outset… weighed down by tonnes of water, impeded in their movement and reliant on a flimsy supply of oxygen. In ordinary circumstances it’s a thrill but when you know there will be danger it’s… uncomfortable.

Bisset and Nolte go deep
So it proves from the long opening sea-section which shows us something like nine minutes of vacationing treasure hunters Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset) and David Sanders’  (Nick Nolte) exploration of the wreck of The Goliath a Second World War freighter. The setting is idyllic as the couple play with fish and octopus, relaxing in this warm blue world of near silence as they prod the ground for anything unusual. Jacqueline Bisset wears a skimpy white t-shirt and one the film’s producer credits with accounting for a large proportion of The Deep’s box office returns. It was the 70s and well this is hardly less blatant a device than say Baywatch

With John Barry’s sumptuous lines sound-tracking the dive you are truly lulled into a false sense of relaxation in spite of the fact you know something’s going to happen…  And, shortly after uncovering a mysterious glass vial Gail reaches for another under part of the wreck with a wooden paddle and, with Jaws-like speed, is pulled by an unknown force towards the upturned hull. She struggles to escape, the paddle is on a strap wound tight on her wrist, but is slammed again and again onto the wood…

By the time she’s raised the alarm, by sending oxygen bubbles up to alert David, she breaks free and kicking his attentive arms away heads as quickly as she can for the surface to clamber exhausted onto their boat: there’s something down there but it’s soon forgotten – Gail is unnaturally resilient throughout the film – when they examine their small haul, the vial and something altogether more intriguing, an old Spanish medallion that would pre-date the ship they’d been investigating by over two hundred years.

Initial investigations back on land suggest the medallion’s possible origin whilst no one has a clue about the vial. Questioning does however bring a visit from a local crime lord, Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.) – no one can keep a secret for long round these parts. The couple deny all knowledge but that doesn’t cut any ice with Cloche…    

There’s one man who may know about the area’s wrecks and he’s a grumpy seafarer living in a converted Lighthouse by the name of Romer Treece (Robert Shaw).  Gail and David go to visit him and he feigns interest in the medallion in order to palm the vial… he knows what it is a swell as Cloche but his motivations are not clear at this point. He offers to investigate the medallion further and fobs the couple off.

Robert Shaw
Cloche has tracked their every move and the next day forces their motor-scooters off the road and kidnaps them. He threatens them and forces Gails to strip in order to show there’s no hiding place for the vial… gratuitous and uncomfortable.

Treece and David dive to the wreckage where they uncover hundreds more of the vials as well as falling through the hull to an older wreck which contains more of the mysterious Spanish artefacts…

On their return  they encounter some of Cloche’s men whom David engages on the beach lift at the same time as Gail is being terrorised by voodoo in another gratuitous and bloody way – chicken feet and random off-cuts of poultry… Cloche is going to a lot of effort to put them off or at least to get his way.

But Gail recovers quickly from her grisly humiliation and starts to draw connections between what they have found and the real treasure down below whilst Treece has now established that the Goliath is carrying a fortune in medicinal morphine worth millions on the open drug market. Cloche was obviously there well before and wants a piece of the action.

Louis Gossett, Jr and Robert Shaw
Treece claims he has wired the wreck with explosives and strikes a deal with the gangster to allow them time to find the Spanish treasure and establish the provenance needed for David and Gail to be recognised as finders of genuine lost treasyre.

It’s a race against time especially as Treece’s weak-willed pal Adam Coffin (Eli Wallach) – a survivor of the Goliath – is still open to other offers…

Can they make the discovery before Cloche’s men lose patience and dive after them and is there anyway they can prevent the bad guys getting their hands on the drugs? The pace hots up for an explosive closing section…

Dusty verdict: The Deep has many fine qualities and is a good-looking ride or should I say dive. It feels a little lose and lacks the unexpected terrors of Jaws whilst the plot lines are a tad convoluted as can happen in adaptations of complex book plots for films.

Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset are individually very good but I don’t sense much chemistry between them: she’s just too sophisticated for him and for an archaeologist he looks like he’d make a great truck driver.

Jacqueline and Nick
Robert Shaw is likeably intense and gets an “ahargh Jim lad!” award for that accent (he was Lancastrian) whilst Mr Wallach does what Eli does…

It’s now available on Blu-ray which will enhance the visual treat no end – not just the Bisset bumps* – and is available from Amazon as usual.               

Just saying...
 *Yes I know…  but the film uses her assets as a considerable selling point so you have to make comment especially as such fore-fronting is hardly a technique left back in the saucy seventies is it? At least Jacqueline Bisset can act unlike so many others who have followed: Pam, Kelly et al…


  1. I could watch the opening shot of Bermuda and listen to the John Barry soundtrack on a loop for hours. I love this film!


  2. Ben, you are not wrong. This film has everything, incredible sea views, unbelievable sound track ( Donna Summer) incredible actors and last but not least Jacqueline Bissett. OMG.

  3. It's a great film to look at sun, sea and Bissett!