Posted by morlockjeff on August 25, 2007
Sometimes a film comes along that no marketing department can get a handle on and as a result it just gets tossed out there to fend for itself and to find an audience on its own. That was the case with DEEP END, released in 1971 by Paramount Pictures to selected art houses and whatever theatre chain was willing to book it. I saw it at the Westhampton Theatre in Richmond, Va. which was obviously run by an Anglophile – you could almost count on any new British film to play there. Of course, DEEP END is only British on the surface. It was set in London but the majority of the film was shot in West Germany. It was also the second English language film for Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski and the cast was relatively unknown to American moviegoers with the possible exceptions of former English sex bomb Diana Dors and Jane Asher, whose main claim to fame at that point was having the dubious distinction of being Paul McCartney’s ex-girlfriend…despite her accomplished work in such films as MANDY (1952, as a child star), THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and ALFIE (1966).
The tagline for the poster reads “If you can’t have the real thing – you do all kinds of unreal things” over an image of a teenage schoolboy ensnared in the long flowing hair of a red-headed woman. In some ways, the publicists weren’t too far off the mark but this approach couldn’t begin to convey the quirky and inspired movie hiding behind the poster. On the surface, it looked like another coming-of-age film and it did play off some of the clichés of that well-worn genre. But it’s much trickier…and deeper…and darker. And also unexpectedly funny.
Set in a seedy bathhouse in a working class borough of London, the film introduces us to a fifteen year old boy named Mike on his first day at work there as an attendant to the clients. Showing him the ropes of the trade is Susan, a provocative and sexy 23-year-old employee who has a fiancé…and is also having an affair with Mike’s former gym teacher. In this strangely cloistered and private environment Mike’s fantasy life runs wild, obviously encouraged by his observation of some of the regular clients, especially an overweight blonde with a football fetish (Diana Dors in one of the film’s more bizarre sequences).
At first the film maintains a wonderful balance between reality and surrealism but as Mike’s sexual obsession with Susan begins to grow the sense of real and unreal become entwined until you can’t tell the dancers from the dance. Skolimowski switches emotional gears often and seamlessly from hilarity to angst to tenderness to tragedy without losing credibility or momentum. And it’s this very quality that divided the critics when it first premiered in the U.S. The ending, in particular, disturbed and angered many but if you are paying attention the road signs are there marking the way. It is not, after all, a coming-of-age film in any ordinary sense but a black comedy about the fears and fantasies of an adolescent male, one whose virginity is more troubling to him than we could ever imagine. Here are just a few of the varied responses it received from the nation’s foremost critics at the time:
“DEEP END seems likeable and promising until it begins to drift, morbidly and irreversibly, off the deep end. I think the final result is rather weird and loathsome…Judging from DEEP END, Skolimowski has a fairly distinctive personality, but it happens to be a split personality, split in a way – half-Truffaut, half-Polanski – that I find rather disconcerting and unappealing.” – Gary Arnold, The Washington Post
“Jerzy Skolimowski has finally put it all together in DEEP END: passion without hysteria, intelligence without derision, and compassion without special pleading. DEEP END is the best of Godard, Truffaut, and Polanski, and then some; nothing less, in fact, than a work of genius on the two tracks of cinema, the visual and the psychological.” – Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice
“A pop-psych tragedy…basically pointless and shallow – a demonstration of artlessness imitating lifelessness.” – Arthur Cooper, Newsweek
“Skolimowski has created a masterpiece, a picture that freezes the smile on your face…Without uttering a word of social protest as such, Skolimowski has created an impassioned denunciation of society’s evils…Before that chilling moment of truth, DEEP END is a very funny film.” – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
“…as clumsily contrived to provide visual thrills as ever any corny old melodrama was contrived to provide chase thrills…The symbolism of the bathhouse is patent; so are the colors. We even see walls being painted red as the passions hot up. (The idea of Red Desert trivialized into Red Dessert.)” – Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic
“….John Moulder-Brown and Jane Asher – They take a vision that had been sober, fateful and heavily ironic and help render it alert, subtle, graceful and sensitive.” – Roger Greenspun, The New York Times
“A canny black comedy, executed with a surrealistic flourish…transforms the rite of puberty into a frenzied and often wildly funny vaudeville.” – Jay Cocks, Time
“Skolimowski mistakes artiness for artistry.” – Hollis Alpert, The Saturday Review.
And there you have it. For me, DEEP END remains as fresh and inventive as any of the French New Wave films of the early sixties (as several critics noted above) such as Godard’s BREATHLESS or Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS but has never enjoyed the reputation or following of either. The only things that betray its age are superficial details – the hair styles and fashions of the early seventies plus a music score that features a theme song by Cat Stevens (“But I Might Die Tonight”) and one by Can – “Mother Sky” – which provides the hypnotic beat over one of the film’s most riveting sequences and involves the Soho nightclub scene, a Chinese hot dog vendor and a bed-ridden prostitute wearing a full leg cast rigged to a pulley.
Last but not least are the subtle but complex performances of both Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown who continue to work in films and television today but are rarely singled out for their excellence or their fascinating filmographies. Asher can be seen in the recent DEATH AT A FUNERAL while Moulder-Brown’s most recent credit is the Greek-Egyptian-UK co-production of YOUNG ALEXANDER THE GREAT (2007). Like Asher, Moulder-Brown was also a child actor (ROOM AT THE TOP, 1959) but is best known by horror film buffs as the deceptively innocent hero of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s LA RESIDENCIA aka THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) and for VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972).
And why am I talking about DEEP END after all these years when it’s been unavailable in any format? Because TCM will be showing it for the first time in its late night franchise, TCM Underground, on January 15, 2010 at 2:30 am ET.
Now if only The Criterion Collection would give it their deluxe treatment
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
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