THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DEEP END” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 187: “Deep End” (1971 coming-of-age-incorrectly film from Jerzy Skolimowski).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It appears to have gone down the drain.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is possible.

If you’ve been following this weekly column, you will realize that there are three main reasons why movies and television productions fall into bootleg circulation. Either there is a legal problem regarding some sort of rights clearance that keeps the work out of commercial channels, or the work in question has an expired copyright that encourages the production of duped prints, or the work just falls through the cracks and is forgotten.

The third scenario seems to be the problem with “Deep End,” a 1971 film with a notable pedigree. As far as I can determine, this is just one of those flicks that somehow became forgotten – to the point that most people don’t even realize it exists. I admit that I was unaware of the film, and I would never have tracked it down had it not been for the witty prodding by Shane Burridge, the New Zealand writer and occasional Film Threat contributor.

“Deep End” was directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, the Polish filmmaker whose work has been more valued by critics than audiences. The film is a strange and grim endeavor that takes one of the most hackneyed of concepts, the coming-of-age tale, and crumples into something fairly uncomfortable. My initial reaction to the film was not encouraging, but I know the film is an original concept and perhaps I need to revisit it to give it a second chance. I will acknowledge it is deserving of being seen.

“Deep End” is set in a fetid public bathhouse-swimming pool in a less-desirable section of London, and the central focus belongs to Michael, a 15-year-old who gets his first paying job as an attendant in that none-too-classy establishment. It is not an ideal job, but he has no choice: his work opportunities appear to be tight due to his relatively limited education and his working class upbringing (he is berated for addressing his new employer as “Guv” rather than “Sir”). The bathhouse doesn’t seem to have a large staff: outside of its owner, the only people on duty are a receptionist, a maintenance worker, and another attendant. That latter individual is Susan, who is in her early twenties and is a bit too eager to take Michael under her wing.

It appears that being a bathhouse attendant requires a little more than cleaning out tubs and handling out towels. Susan explains to Michael that the women who come for a bath like a bit of extra attention – especially if the attention delivered by sweet teenage boys. She also mentions in passing that some men like that same level of attention, but we never get to see that happen to Michael (Susan has the monopoly on the male patrons).

Michael is initially horrified that this is expected of him, and his first day on the job finds him being pawed over by an overweight, sexually rapacious middle-aged woman with a fondness for soccer players (she’s played by one-time glamour girl Diana Dors, and it is hard to imagine that she was once considered the British equivalent of Marilyn Monroe). Eventually, Michael gets the hang of the job and begins to generate considerable tips from his satisfied clientele.

Michael, however, begins to develop the hots for Susan. It seems like a silly idea, since she clearly runs hot and cold on him – sometimes she is teasing and warm, other times she’s insulting and indifferent. Michael’s interest in her grows obsessive, and he doesn’t care that she has both a boyfriend and a fiance. He even follows her when she’s on a date – to a porno theater, of all places – and feels her up in the darkness of the cinema (she slaps him and agrees to have the police intervene, but then she appears to enjoy the attention and vanishes before formal charges are pressed).

“Deep End” then literally goes off the deep end as Michael’s mania for Susan intensifies. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, he swims naked in the bathhouse pool while embracing a large cardboard cutout of a woman who vaguely resembles Susan. Michael eventually gets his clothing-free moment with Susan, but his hopes and dreams don’t quite turn out as he anticipated and his attempt to preserve an unrealistic dream in the face of harsh reality ends badly for all concerned.

The strength of “Deep End” rests in the performances by John Moulder Brown as Michael and Jane Asher as Susan. Brown captures the awkwardness of a 15-year-old brilliantly – his gangly body and immature personality represents works in progress, and his inability to recognize the cruelties of life will create pain for anyone who recalls their own teenage missteps in the realm of the heart. Asher, who is better known today as Paul McCartney’s girlfriend during his Beatles bachelor period, is equally astonishing in spinning Susan’s nasty blend of wickedness, comfort and ice. The characters created by these two actors are aching in their genuine tone and texture.

But perhaps they were a little too real – and too close for audience comfort. Despite backing from Paramount Pictures and a strong critical reaction (as well as attention by having an original score created by Cat Stevens and the German group The Can), “Deep End” was a major commercial flop when it hit theaters in 1971. In retrospect, it makes sense why it failed. As a coming-of-age flick, it was too dark and creepy to be embraced by nostalgia-seeking moviegoers. But as a psychological drama, it was too extreme (especially when the focus of the film is a sexually hungry minor as the subject of adult female attention). Even fans of British cinema were kept at arm’s length by the excessively depressing view of a drab, tacky London (the film was actually shot in Munich, which may explain the geographical disconnect).

After its brief and unsuccessful theatrical run, “Deep End” slipped down the drain and was forgotten. Skolimowski continued to turn out films, generating more interest from critics than audiences, and perhaps his lack of standing as a consistently commercial filmmaker has kept “Deep End” (and the bulk of his canon) unavailable for home video release.

“Deep End” was released on British video but not in American retail channels. A bootleg DVD I acquired appears to have come from a cable television broadcast.

I was not comfortable with much of “Deep End,” but I do admire Skolimowski’s daring to explore a story that did not fit nicely into pre-conceived notions of youth growing up. If “Deep End” is an emotionally difficult film to embrace, it nonetheless presents an original artistic vision that dares to explore the nastier aspects of life. It clearly deserves to be seen, so perhaps Paramount will bring it up from its vaults in the near future, dust it off with digital remastering, and give it a second chance.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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