As the opening strains of Cat Stevens singing ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ drift effectively over tracking shots of red water pipes, interspersed with the sight of principal actor John Moulder Brown cycling through a suburban not-quite-London wasteland that could be either South Norwood or the borders of Margate and Broadstairs by my reckoning (according to the IMDB it’s Fulham, but I’m not convinced this refers to the exteriors), it becomes apparent that the film we are about to see is something that could have only come from a certain era of British film making. Yes, one of those films.
DEEP END was Polish émigré Skolimowki’s first English language film, and as such set out his stock-in trade, establishing the themes for which he would become known. Principally these are alienation, obsession, a skewed view of the world from an outsider’s viewpoint, and the inability to relate to or understand everyday events that others would take for granted. Although the initial two or three scenes, imbued with the fascinatingly washed-out colour scheme peculiar to British films of the time (cf David Greene’s I START COUNTING or Lyndsay Shonteff’s PERMISSIVE) set a tone which belongs firmly in the director’s engagingly bleak mise-en-scene, there is no hint whatsoever at what sort of film we are watching or where it will lead, which makes finding out all the more fascinating.
Obviously a film set in a swimming baths (the sort of thing that could really only have come from 65-75 Britain) will feature plenty of water-based imagery, but in this case the ‘deep end’ referred to is not merely the one in which its two protagonists spend most of their time, but the one into which the reluctant hero, 16 year old school leaver Mike, has been figuratively thrown – the world of work, adulthood and sexual attraction – none of which he seems emotionally or mentally prepared for. He is a fish out of water, but is pushed in the water repeatedly throughout the 90-minute running time: he seems outwardly normal but is obviously troubled by issues, none of which are ever satisfactorily explained, but then again who said that films had to provide you with all the answers on a plate? Skolimowski’s skill (later amply demonstrated in THE SHOUT and MOONLIGHTING) lies in presenting the viewer with more and more questions, many of which he probably hasn’t even thought of himself. A perfect example is the usage in certain crowd scenes of German actors dubbed into English alongside seasoned UK performers, so that dubbing contrasts with naturally synchronised voices and creates an uneven babble that blindsides Mike as much as the viewer. This disjointed, uneven approach to both movement and dialogue recurs throughout – the depiction of confusion through repetition, non-cooperation (from the still sexually powerful Diana Dors’ cameo as a customer with a penchant for smothering young boys with her buxom figure, through to the wounded prostitute’s refusal to hand back a cardboard cut-out to her unwilling client). As we view the film through Mike’s eyes, his confusion is ours and vice versa: we even feel that we share his neuroses. Everything that interrupts his vision or his concentration interrupts ours, an unwelcome distraction in a non-linear world.
We share his irritation at every deviation from his path, such as the sound of giggling children, or the overtures made to him by the baffling Dors, past her prime at this point but still a strong presence of womanliness. But most of all we centre on his inability to engage the attention of the heroine, Sue (Jane Asher), and it is this unrequited love that forms the core of the film. Not much older then Mike herself, but already a fully fledged sexually active woman (and tempered by a bleak cynicism which we later discover is due to the means by which her innocence has been lost), Sue is not only everything Mike wants, but everything he wants to be – confident, outgoing and above all an adult. Or at least that’s how she appears on the surface – a cynical viewer, particularly one well versed in British arthouse and exploitation cinema, would draw their own conclusions about someone who chooses to date men obviously much older than herself that she clearly has little affection for but who hold positions of wealth and security, and sure enough in a later scene she reveals to Mike that she is fatherless. Although by this token, it should be pointed out that her unnamed fiancée (faded pop idol/pirate DJ Christopher Sandford, who had already found immortality among genre fans in Pete Walker’s similarly bleak COOL IT CAROL and would soon further the cause with DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE) actually comes across as one of the most sympathetic of the film’s characters; his hangdog expression giving a natural credence to his long-suffering demeanour.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the infamous ‘cinema scene’ where his obliviousness and apathy allows the interloping Mike to fondle his wayward beau from the seat behind hers: note that she not only allows this to happen, but quite voluntarily turns and openly snogs her supposed molester the minute that the now irate Sandford runs to fetch the manager. The fact that the couple are sitting together in a cinema watching a sex film could be telling in itself, but to be honest this was 1969, and if the likes of Ray Selfe are to be believed, then this was quite the norm for the times!! The fact that Mike manages to get into the cinema when he is quite clearly underage merely by dint of wearing a suit, and that he gets off so lightly for his crime, never mind that a street policeman falls so easily for the teenager’s age-old ploy of ‘this man tried to touch me up’ when Sandford tries to report him five minutes later, amply demonstrates that even in a changing world where people’s minds were opening, many doors were still closed.
At this point in the proceedings, we are still supposed to sympathise with Mike, but it is fast becoming obvious that there is something quite radically wrong with our supposed ‘hero’ – his viewing of Asher undressing through a keyhole is enough to tell us that his interest has become obsession very quickly, as is his deliberately setting off the fire alarm. If he were ‘like other boys’ he would have easily caved in to Dors and her amorous advances, and he wouldn’t be so overtly protective of Sue, who is far more capable than he of looking after herself, when the local lads in the baths start undressing and making overtures towards her. However, for all of his naiveté and detached otherness, he still loves football, and has obviously been attractive enough in his own right to chalk up one ex girlfriend, Cathy (Anita Lochner, later to find a career as a German voice dub for the likes Of Miou Miou and Isabelle Adjani), who turns up quite early on and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that her desire for him hasn’t subsided yet – not that he responds, he is already too lost in his obsession. On the other side of the coin, it’s never made clear whether or not Sue has any feelings, either sexual or emotional, for Mike, but she is more than willing to lead him on and use him as a bargaining tool in her rows with Sandford, so from this standpoint it’s difficult for the viewer to sympathise directly with her.
In fact, Sue is a double-sided coin in many ways: on the one hand a fast-developing, strong emancipated woman, on the other an immature tart with little or no respect for herself or anyone else. This could be again due to the lack of a strong parental figure in her life, but I see more of a depiction of how the changing moral attitudes and counterculture explosion of the late 60s had left the less upwardly mobile elements of a generation floundering for identity. This is the very core of the Swinging London Skolimowski shows us, which is far more complex and multi layered than the rollicking milieu of SMASHING TIME or the melodrama employed in ALFIE and UP THE JUNCTION: a world of ambiguities, where the characters’ own attitudes are as uncertain as ours toward them. That is, except for the character of the chief swimming instructor (Karl Michael Vogler) whose intentions towards his pubescent female students are far from ambiguous in any way: he is one of the many reasons why such a film would have difficulty finding a release in today’s climate, to say nothing of its off-the wall subject matter and non-linear content, except of course for its slow build towards its deadly resolution.
The dialogue is just as cracked and disjointed as the plot itself- characters talk in the hithering and dithering manner in which Mike behaves, and this is amplified by the fact that we perceive them as he does. Likewise, everyone finds themselves in situations they didn’t want to cause to happen: the instructor doesn’t want to run over Mike’s bicycle anymore than he wants to leave his keys with Sue after one of many of their illicit liaisons, and Mike doesn’t necessarily want to ride into his car, but her magnetic presence, like that of Barbra Streisand in WHAT’S UP DOC, leads everyone to their inevitable chaotic downfall. Equally bizarre is the fact that no-one comments on Mike’s behaviour (even those whom he directs it at) or anyone else’s: save for the odd disapproving gaze towards Sue from the bespectacled cashier (Erica Beer) who clearly represents everything the former DOESN’T want to be, no-one seems vaguely fazed by anyone else’s activities in the slightest. An entire tube full of people sit and watch the hero and heroine row at length, and no-one cares or is slightly concerned that a woman is being harassed – mind you, this IS London, and maybe her attitude to Mike (which includes showing him her expensive engagement ring and saying “How much do you think that cost then?”) doesn’t leave much room for empathy. The only concerns people seem to have are for irrelevant minutiae, such as the manager of the swimming baths who ticks the boy off for calling him ‘Guv’ rather than ‘Sir’ or Mike himself informing his mum and anon-English speaking customer that they’ve strayed into the wrong gender changing rooms. Is Skolimowski trying to tell us something about human nature? Is this based on personal experience? Is the throwing of the cardboard cut-out into the water by night, or the picture of the pregnant man, meant to symbolise something? Does Mike intend to purge, baptise, wash his own thoughts, or is it merely s case of wanting to control something which in real life is beyond his reach? To this day we don’t know, but we’re all the more fascinated for not knowing. Or at least I am. Maybe I don’t go out enough.
Like all classic late night films best remembered through a haze of TV-induced teenage ennui (my own, not Moulder Brown’s), DEEP END has its ‘pivotal’ or ‘iconic’ scene that most people remember, and in this case more iconic than most- to use pub vernacular, the ‘bit where’ Mike, the perennial outsider looking in, trawls the streets of Soho to the throbbing, trancelike sound of Can’s classic “Mother Sky”. From a nightclub he isn’t a member of and can’t afford to join, to the street where he tries a hot dog for the first time (incredible to think they were new in the UK once) at the stall of the ubiquitous Burt Kwouk, to the club again, to the street again, to the club again, to the hotdog stand again, this time accompanied by two unwelcome young girl onlookers, back to the alley where he finds the cardboard cut-out advertising in no uncertain terms the topless Asher’s nefarious night time job, up the stairs with its owner in hot pursuit into the lair of the aforementioned wounded prostitute (yet another character who seems incapable of performing her basic function), and ultimately onto the tube to confront his quarry about her activities, every second plays like a finely tuned ballet of drama or comedy of errors. Each repetitive movement, from the prostitute’s unsolicited (no pun intended) line of questioning, through the intermittent fight scene breaking out between a local porn baron and the man falsely suspected of stealing the poster board, down to Kwouk’s every choreographed genuflection of ‘Hotdog sir? With Onions?” is like something from a half-remembered dream induced by a bad hangover or dodgy narcotic intake, the thrumming, wailing, screeching German-Japanese psychedelic soundtrack only adding to the tension. Not only is it one of the most evocative and captivating, but quite simply it’s one of the most utterly bonkers scenes in any British picture ever released (I mean, you’d have to be bonkers or at least a bit daft to order a cab from Brewer Street to Leicester Square, wouldn’t you?), and all the better for it. As for the red and blue-hued cinematography by the underrated Charly Steinberger, well what more can be said?
In the final half-hour, the film almost becomes the comedy it threatens from the very outset to be: kids lark around in snow, gangs of boys egg each other on and behave in that somewhat endearing way beloved of the pre-chav yob (see practically every film made in the UK before 1990 that features a teenage character for further reference) and it looks as if we’re almost on the road to something light hearted and upbeat, when something seemingly insignificant, namely the disappearance of a diamond from Sue’s engagement ring, acts as the catalyst that will eventually reveal the director’s black pitch. We also see that Sue’s obsessive tendencies are the equal of her pursuer, and that nothing, not even the forces of nature, will get in her way. At this point we begin to feel a little uneasy but we’re still not sure why: the important thing is that we believe every minute of it, whether it’s gangs of joggers passing by as a boy in a dressing gown and a girl in yellow PVC arrange rings round bags full of snow whilst fighting a small yappy dog, or a large metal heated lamp on a rope and pulley system being lowered into a swimming pool; with no water in order to melt ice whilst a beautiful red-haired girl strains water through her tights. We believe every minute of it. As the sleazy swimming teacher- not a paedophile in the true sense of the world, merely a sexual inadequate with a clueless wife and a need to boost his ego by sleeping with inexperienced teenage girls – climbs in through a window (again, normal people would use a door, but this is a Skolimowski film here) to ask Asher for his keys back, only to be shouted at for robbing her of her innocence (presumably this was some time in the past) from beneath a very high balcony and ultimately be called a ‘bastard poof’ before slinking away, we take it with as much credence as we would hearing our own names.
We are now lost in this ride for the long haul, wondering where it will lead us, and realise we ourselves are interlopers in someone else’s highly personalised and slightly worrying view of the human condition. Not that we don’t have any discretion at all – we still can’t bring ourselves to feel sorry for Sue, especially when over the next ten minutes we see the way in which she talks to her fiancée on the phone and then subsequently manipulates Mike for here own ends, finally stripping naked and kissing him in the water that, having ominously been turned on by the arriving stoker several minutes previously, has begun to flow into the pool with even more sinister import. On one hand we are still in the realms of surrealist black comedy, watching two people with no clothes on standing in a public baths babbling at each other, then all of a sudden we take that final step, the step which we knew we would have to take but didn’t want to believe, and we have entered the realms of…well, horror. Except of course, that I’m not going to disclose to anyone who hasn’t seen this film (which I imagine would include a lot of you) exactly what happens- suffice to say it will shock you with its suddenness, and perplex you with its mixture of brutality and beauty, and demonstrate perhaps more amply than any other three minutes of celluloid from the era how masterfully genres could be crossed. And that once again, it uses the music of Cat Stevens to stunning emotional effect, deploys symbolism that had been so well set up throughout that I defy anyone to spot it until it happens (I didn’t) and displays the director’s undoubtedly skilled use of hue and photography for what it is.
Although Asher, recently separated from Paul McCartney, was still a very hot property at this point, and the trend in cinema audiences at the time was toward more challenging fare (particularly the works of Roeg and Anderson) DEEP END didn’t set the world alight upon release – its reliance on unknown (to British audiences) German actors, coupled with low key distribution and the lack of anything like a convenient peg to hang it on effectively “did for it” before the final reel had been passed uncut by Trevelyan, and it was another seven years before its director released another feature film, THE SHOUT- equally non-linear and existential, but this time definitely lodged in the horror genre. Like the British sex comedies with which it shares a sense of atmosphere, DEEP END found its cinematic audience in late night cult bills, particularly many years after its release, among artful aesthetes who were only too eager to see a film that featured a genuine Krautrock soundtrack, or mods who had heard whispered tell for decades (even more so since the intervention of the Internet) of a film where one actually saw its heroine in the buff. On television, it seems to have had scant screenings, but the ones that it did receive (particularly one in the late 80s, if my memory serves me right, in a C4 season which also included MULBERRY BUSH, PRIVILEGE and DARLING) meant it stuck firmly in the minds of all who saw it. And once you have seen it, you can’t wait to share the experience with everyone else you know: unfortunately, most prints in circulation (including my own) are scratched, spliced and lacking in sound clarity, and the video release from the early 80s appears to have been as poorly distributed as the actual film itself. As for any upcoming DVD release, it would probably be quicker to wait for an uncut print of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT to turn up. They tell us there isn’t a market for this kind of film these days – but if that’s the case, why do I know so many people who desperately want to see it? For people of a certain age group, it really is one of the ultimate experiences one can share with one’s friends – it’s just a shame that it’s so difficult to do so.