Author and screenwriter Peter Benchley struck gold with "Jaws" (1975), and "The Deep" (1977) was a follow-up film that tried for gold again . . . this time, literally. Both films were based on his first and second novels, which had been published the previous year. But until "The Beast" almost 15 years later, Benchley wouldn't be able to recapture the magical terror of his first megahit.
For one thing, "The Deep" doesn't have the strong emotional and narrative through-lines that "Jaws" did. There was a tension so great that you were ready to jump out of your seat with that film. Not so with this story about a pair of tourists who are scuba diving old wrecks off the coast of Bermuda and become entangled with a local treasure hunter and a Haitian drug lord who apparently is unaware that Bermuda is not Haiti. In "The Deep," there's not nearly as much tension, and what's there is more the "I wonder what's going to happen next" variety, rather than the "OMG" real thing.
Then again, Mr. Jaws made a bunch of appearances in Benchley's first book and film, and when he wasn't visible there was still that pulsing theme song of his. But a giant moray eel hardly gets any screen time at all in "The Deep." Maybe that's because he looks considerably less real than the mechanical shark used in the first film. But there's nothing more annoying to fans of creature features than to have the creature feel like a walk-on.
Tension was also created in "Jaws" by the individual characters themselves, each of whom you felt was holding something back--a secret, maybe, or a part of their character that makes them seem unpredictable. While Robert Shaw returns for a second Benchley go-round and Louis Gossett does the best he can as Haitian honcho Henri Cloche, neither character is written with as much depth, and both come closer to one-dimensional clichés that we've seen before. There's no scar-swapping episode in this film, and precious little character development. Worse, there are moments that feel as if they're going to lead to something, but ultimately don't.
Which brings us to the two stars, Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, who play a sexually and perhaps romantically (we can't tell with Nolte) involved couple on vacation. Though Nolte would elevate his game later in his career, here he doesn't bring anything to the role that's not in the script. Neither does Bisset. To be fair, she's not given as much of a chance, since she's there mostly for titillation. But there's a scene in which the couple is staying with treasure-expert Treece (Shaw) for protection and, following a dialogue exchange in which nothing much happens, David (Nolte) announces he's going to bed. Gail (Bisset), wearing a bathrobe, lingers. Possible sexual tension, right? Nope. Nothing there. Possible tension revealed between her and David? Nothing there either. More character development for either of them? Again, sorry. All that's here is more surface talk and a shared drink of rum that, throughout this film, looks dark as Guinness. As clichéd and unoriginal as the plot is, it's just enough to be reasonably entertaining. But beware of Seventies' pacing . . . and a "Calypso Disco" end-credit song, which tells you as much about this film as anything I could say.
"The Deep" gets off to a fast-enough start. After aerial shots of Bermuda we watch David and Gail diving the wreck and finding several things: what looks like an encrusted coin, and a tiny bottle still filled with something. Being rank amateurs, they're careless about keeping their find a secret, and before long they're paid a visit by Henri Cloche, who identifies himself as a "bottle collector." David is smart enough to know he's no such thing, but dumb enough to extend their little vacation because of this treasure hunt and not care a whole lot about who Cloche really is. He and Gail do a little research, which takes them to local treasure expert Treece. Any time you have two factions competing for treasure there's the obligatory turncoat or snitch, and that function is provided here by veteran character actor Eli Wallach as Adam Coffin--an underutilized role which seems akin to a rock star has-been reduced to playing county fairs. Coffin, in a kind of playful allusion to Moby-Dick, is the sole survivor of the shipwrecked Goliath, which was carrying munitions and morphine. That explains the ampoule, but what about the coin? Could this be the site of two shipwrecks? Or are we all still thinking about Bisset's wet t-shirt dive, which, when she surfaces, leaves little to the imagination. Bond girls have nothing on her.
In fact, there are a number of Bond echoes in this film. There's a dramatic explosion and an opening sequence in which Bisset dives braless in a t-shirt--essentially a wet t version of Ursula Andress's swim in "Dr. No." And we're reminded of countless Bond villains during a hotel-room visit from voodoo practitioners and a fight in which one man grabs an outboard motor and starts it up, trying to cut the other's face with the spinning propeller. But the Bond films were played for camp, and we don't get that from director Peter Yates, whose uneven career included such previous films as "Bullitt" and "Mother, Jugs & Speed." This one isn't as much of a stinker as "Mother," but for a treasure hunt with a giant moray eel and Haitian drug lords it's not nearly as exciting as it sounds.
Speaking of uneven, let's talk about the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. It could be the film elements themselves, but some scenes have far more grain than others. Some of the most striking scenes--those with bright colors, strong delineation, and knock-out detail--are the underwater scenes inside the ship when the space permitted underwater lighting. But other scenes are as soft and wispy as Bisset's Seventies' hair. In fact, there are more soft-looking sequences than sharp ones. Black levels seem to fluctuate too. The big positive is that for a catalog title as old as this one there's a pleasing sense of 3-dimensionality that comes in a number of scenes. "The Deep" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and in Blu-ray it's not as bad as a catalog title this old could have been, nor is it something to rave about.
The featured audio is an English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it's a little limp. Dialogue is muffled in spots, and you'll generally need to turn up the volume on this one more than usual. The strength of the soundtrack is actually to be found in the underwater sequences, where the ambient sound makes it easy to feel as if you're right there, 60 feet underwater, with them. Mostly, though, it's a front-heavy track that doesn't involve the rear speakers enough unless there's something severe in the way of special effects or musical crescendo. An additional audio option is Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Years ago, when NBC aired this film they did so with 53 minutes of added footage, and this release includes "Select Scenes from the 3 Hour Special Edition." Included among the six deleted scenes is one on the sinking of the Goliath, with the longest one a segment in which Nolte and Bisset talk in bed. All totaled there are roughly 21 minutes of deleted scenes that you can see here, most of which add a little meat to the characters' bones. Does that mean a Special Edition Blu-ray is coming? I can't tell you. But I wouldn't put it past them. This feels like a test-balloon.
The only other bonus feature is a pretty nice making-of extra narrated by Shaw that runs close to 50 minutes. You really begin to understand what an arduous task it is for everyone involved to film a movie that's shot largely underwater. Included in this vintage feature are cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It's above average for features of this sort, and I frankly enjoyed more than the film.
"The Deep" doesn't exactly give you the bends, but when you come up for air you realize that this was one cinematic dive that could have been deeper . . . and better edited.