Friday, March 26, 2010

Back in the Swim of Things!

Okay. Let me just say that my brief time away from The Underworld, in which I tackled the theatre company newsletter, the musical play critique, my taxes and an avalanche of WORK was, in every way, far more aggravating and draining than I had ever anticipated! However, I am all done (well, not with work, but with the other extraneous “hazardous duties”) and am glad to be back doing my thing here.

New Year’s Eve, I stumbled upon an old acquaintance (one I hadn’t seen in more than a few years) at a party and, being that it was NYE, I was yammering on about The Poseidon Adventure. He absolutely floored me when he said that he’d just been reading about the movie THAT DAY and where do you think he’d been? RIGHT HERE! Since then, he’s revisited here a time or two and become interested in a few of the disaster genre films I have profiled. His favorite types of movies deal with the ocean, so, Jimbo, this oddity is for you, the title of which seems quite appropriate for this site.

The Neptune Factor, released in 1973, is a movie that I’d never even heard of until I was in my early 20s and is one that I waited many years to finally see (November of 2007, to be precise!) Produced during the early swell of the 1970s disaster movie cycle, this Canadian-made adventure film combines elements from that genre along with a little sci-fi. (Lalo Schifrin's score, notably in the opening, seems hell-bent on ripping off John Williams' one for Poseidon.)

The quite thrilling poster art for the film wrote checks that the actual movie never had a prayer of cashing! Elaborate scenes of mammoth sea life attacking divers and their underwater vessels might have put a few butts in the seats at first, but once word spread about what the reality of the movie was like, attendance trickled away.

Check out these lobby cards, cards which are generally meant to depict stolen moments from the actual movie, not just reproductions of the conceptual artwork! The distributors didn’t dare show what these scenes (some of which have no representation in the flick anyway!) looked like in the actual picture or no one would have bought a ticket! You can get the same effect of the giant fish in The Neptune Factor by going to Petland and pressing your face against the glass as close as you can get it.

To outline the basic premise, an undersea research lab charged with investigating the cause of earthquakes gets some firsthand data when a tremor rocks the ocean floor, sending the lab careening into a deep crevice. On the surface, doctors Walter Pidgeon and (the ever-busy) Yvette Mimieux, along with divers Ernest Borgnine and Donnelly Rhodes, attempt to locate the lab along with its three inhabitants, one of who is Mimieux's drippy, crooked-faced, fish-lipped boyfriend.

For a millisecond, it seems like there might be a dollop of beefcake involved in this film (and it surely couldn’t have hurt!) The divers tend to roam around inside their lab with their suits unzipped to their abdomen. However, most of them are either unattractive or otherwise hunk-resistant. The one shown here is probably the cutest, and I do like his hairy moobs, but his personality is grating, his hips are ginormous and he’s scarcely seen again after this anyway.

With time running out in the wake of the accident (the lab only has seven days worth of life support) and with no real clues to the lab's whereabouts, they call in Ben Gazzara, who operates a special deepwater sub called Neptune. With considerable difficulty and conflict, they discover that the lab has slipped far beneath the normal realm of exploration, meaning that Neptune must go to places heretofore never witnessed by man.

Once there, they find that the deepest recesses of the ocean contain massive, over-sized fish and sea life, thanks to the warmth emitted from nearby volcanic fissures, creatures that severely obstruct the crew's chances of retrieving the men they're searching for!

Pidgeon, who had just appeared previously with Mimieux in Skyjacked, is far beyond the peak of his talents here, often seeming befuddled and dispassionate, despite his inherent likeability from decades of prior screen triumphs. He kept working rather steadily about five years longer, but, sadly, would be dead in a decade due to a series of strokes.

Borgnine is markedly heavier than he was just one year earlier in The Poseidon Adventure, though, hysterically, his stunt double is notably more slender. His performance is almost reserved in contrast to some of his other, more bombastic, portrayals and he doesn't embarrass himself (even if he is not the first person who comes to mind as a deep sea diver!)

Mimieux is attractive, but hasn't got much to do besides look worried, stunned, awestruck and/or dazed most of the time. She does have a scuba scene in which the depth gets to her and she starts getting all loopy and disoriented. I can’t decide if she somehow wound up in a disproportionate number of movies that I happen to be attracted to or if she was, literally, placed in every single motion picture produced from 1960 to 1979.

New York actor Gazzara is horribly miscast and gives a stoic, wooden performance topped off with an atrocious Atlanta, GA accent. An actor who had some seriously challenging and memorable stage roles (including Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as well as film parts (The Strange One and Anatomy of a Murder), a lot of people find him sexy. I can’t say I’m one of them, though, especially here.

Rhodes (far right in the photo below) is another one without a lot to do other than follow orders, but he retains his likable persona. He’s best remembered, in The Underworld at least, for playing one of Blanche Devereaux’s kindest and most appealing boyfriends in a single episode of The Golden Girls. (He was Jake, the caterer, who Blanche thought was beneath her until it was too late.) He’s otherwise known for a stint on Soap and that recent Battlestar Galactica redux, among many other things.

The film has been roundly criticized from its release right up to the present for its effects concerning the "giant" fish (actually regular old sea life and tropical fish projected UP CLOSE against the portals of the Neptune) and that aspect of the film is definitely preposterous, corny and poorly handled. However, there is still considerable tension and some otherwise fine miniature work and underwater photography. It must be said that the miniature work isn’t always flawless. Check out this horrendous publicity still in which some creatures (guppies?!) are attacking what looks to be a Neptune keychain…
Other times, the model work is more passable, as this blue-tinged snapshot demonstrates.
Another issue is the amount of light and clarity of the water at these murky depths and the premise that men can simply emerge from their vessels and scuba dive in pressures that are that intense.

One thing that robs the film of emotional impact is the fact that the audience barely gets to meet the trapped technicians before they disappear into the crevice and their plight is never shown again through the most of the duration of the film. Also, the finale is rushed, murky and very poorly handled. Much of it (notably a key attack) is done with a lot of double exposure to save on special effects money and effort.

Continuity is an issue as well. Mimieux appears in a different wash and wear outfit nearly every time she appears, even in the same day. This isn’t The Love Boat fer cryin’ out loud! It's a miracle her clothes don't change within scenes. (Note the way she and Pidgeon seem to wear the same outfits whenever they're on deck, no matter which day it is. Obviously, all of those moments were shot in one afternoon.) See if you can count how manytimes she's shown putting on or taking off a white lab coat.

More unbelievable than the giant fish is the presumption that Borgnine can shimmy in and out of his (oddly ragged considering how new everything else is!) scuba suit in the time allotted. He’s constantly making quick changes when we all know it probably took a small army to shoehorn him into the thing. Methinks the black marks on his suit are where it ruptured slightly from all the tugging and yanking on it!

Mimieux and Borgnine, would reunite a few years later in The Black Hole, another film in which they were confined to a vessel that was tossed into completely new and mysterious surroundings. A scene between the pair, which may have illuminated her relationship with the missing doctor and added a little more emotional depth to the story, was cut prior to release.

Still, there's something endearing about the clean, bright sets, the earnest performers, the mysterious and unusual aspects of the storyline and the mostly effective effects. As another online reviewer adeptly pointed out, in 1973 we had not yet been able to explore the oceans as we can now. The wreck of the Titanic had not yet been discovered. Audiences could suspend their disbelief just a tad more than they can now and they had more patience. That still doesn’t make the trick photography much more convincing, though. How scary is a giant clownfish?

Though it can be a bit tedious at times, it should be a reasonably pleasant viewing for fans of the stars or for fans of 70s disaster flicks. A superlative DVD came out in 2007, making this practically forgotten film available again to those who wish to plumb its depths.


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