I'm a sucker for film lists, particularly those that cull the forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise unchampioned from the sea of cinematic ephemera. Sight & Sound's75 Hidden Gems: The Great Films Time Forgot (August 2007) is (for the most part) precisely the kind of list that makes my mouth water, and it's led me on a quest to hunt down as many down as possible.
As part of the magazine's 75th anniversary, the editors asked critics from around the world to choose a single film that is "unduly obscure and worthy of greater eminence." With few exceptions (both Stir of Echoes and Superstar are hardly lost or forgotten) the list is pretty darn solid, and of the 75 (76 if you count Editor Nick James' selection of The Moon in the Gutter) I've only seen a pitiful 16. I decided to track down some of the rarer titles, especially those I've had on my 'to see' list for some time.
The first film I managed to locate was Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1970), the selection of BBC critic David Thompson. My familiarity with Skolimowski is limited to his work as a screenwriter (Knife in the Water), and one film -- the also-forgotten Moonlighting from 1982, though I've been trying to locate his adaptation of Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave for years.
Deep End, his second English language film, is a seedy psychosexual thriller set in London's East End. Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is a shy, awkward 15 year-old who lands a job at a public bathhouse. When not escaping from the lusty clutches of oversexed, oversized middle-aged women who would love nothing more than to rob him of his innocence (including Diana Dors, here more resembling Divine than the blonde bombshell of The Unholy Wife), Mike himself is lusting after fellow employee Susan (red-headed beauty Jane Asher) -- several years his senior, and having an affair with a swimming instructor although she's engaged. Mike's obsession with Susan will lead him on a downward spiral into the underworld of porno theaters, swingers clubs, and the consumption of too many hot dogs.
Skolimowski's portrait of youth is decidedly bleak, with Mike thrust into the real world straight from school without the necessary psychological or emotional maturity. His obsession with Susan -- a calculating temptress who strives to possess all she can get -- is more tragic than frightening, but I'm not sure if the element of social criticism is intentional. If nothing else, the film is unbelievably sordid. Every adult figure is portrayed as selfish, corrupt, callous or simply sleazy, save for a hot dog vendor (played by Cato himself, Burt Kwouk) who is the lone possessor of something resembling a warm, human emotion. The line readings throughout are so flat, that I wasn't sure if the film was dubbed, or if Skolimowski was going after a Bressonian vibe.
The lengthy set piece that leads to the film's tragic conclusion, while not at all surprising, is rather disturbing, owing to Skolimowski's refusal to apply even a trace of moral appraisal; there are no lessons to be learned here. Lodged somewhere between art-house and exploitation flick, and with an incredible soundtrack by Cat Stevens and Krautrock superstars Can, Deep End is a look at the darker side of swinging London -- where porno films feature Wagner scores, middle-aged women use boys as masturbatory objects, and a public bathhouse will sooner get you killed than clean.