Movies We Like
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.
The best scenes may be between the two old acting pros, Shaw and Gossett (fresh off his wonderful work in Roots as Fiddler), who make for interesting adversaries. There’s a classic fight scene between their two henchman (Tessier and Earl Maynard), and of course the two hulking legends would be reunited five years later in The Sword and the Sorcerer. But there is also a potentially offensive vibe in the battle of white and black people's sides (guess which race are the leering, greedy, more violent bad guys?) reminiscent of Live and Let Die and dozens of other films in the '70s that had black villains up against white heroes.
For Benchley, after the phenomenal success that both the book and film Jaws had been, The Deep was considered a minor financial success. But as he continued to write novels, he would never again reach the height of the first two books. His third was The Island, which was made into a bizarre movie with Michael Caine trying to rescue his son from a bunch of modern day pirates, who in turn use him to impregnate their women. And throughout the '80s and '90s he continued to return to his water-clogged themes with titles like Girl of the Sea of Cortez, White Shark (made into a TV movie with the new title Creature), and Beast (which was also made into a TV movie kinda retitled The Beast about a giant squid attacking folks). He also created a TV miniseries about a girl who can talk to dolphins called Dolphin Cove. I think it’s fair to say Benchley has fish on the brain. But luckily the fish were only minor characters in The Deep and instead we get the contrived but still very entertaining treasure hunting. With the great Robert Shaw at the end of his life (he died a few years later at the age of 51) and the ever intense and manly Nolte at the start of his interesting career, and of course Bisset bringing the wet T-shirt into fashion, you can’t go wrong. It may not have been the Jaws size hit everyone was hoping for and Benchley may have spent the rest of his career in search of that elusive white whale (with Jaws-sized paychecks attached), but The Deep still delivers. If Jaws made a generation nervous about swimming in the ocean, The Deep may have at least dissuaded a couple of vacationers from diving for morphine.