March 3, 2010
Deep End (1971)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Stars: John Moulder-Brown, Jane Asher, Karl Michael Vogler

What it's about. This strange and tragic coming-of-age tale stars John Moulder-Brown as Mike, a good-looking 15 year old boy who gets a job as an attendant at a bath house in England. His co-worker is Susan (Jane Asher), a red-headed hottie in her early twenties.

Susan, worldly for her years, conspires to switch customers on occasion with Mike. This will enable the two attractive attendants to increase their tips, since the bathers are often there to fantasize over, or even paw, attendants of the opposite gender. The worst of the bathers is an obese middle-aged woman (Diana Dors, a former British sex symbol) who forces Mike to nuzzle her chest.

Mike soon develops a crush on Susan, which is understandable given his age, her beauty, and her flirtatious behavior. But Mike cannot accept that Susan is a classic bad girl, who has a well-to-do fiancé (Christopher Sandford), a cynical older lover at the bathhouse (Karl Michael Vogler), and apparently a sex show in the red light district. Mike follows her there, where he has a run-in with prostitute Lovely Continental (Louise Martini), on duty despite one leg in a cast.

But it gradually becomes clear that the real problem here isn't with Susan, who enjoys her sexual promiscuity and freedom, but with Mike, whose meddlesome fixation with Susan and her escapades eventually leads to a sudden and disturbing climax.

How others will see it. Deep End had an auspicious debut at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, but it failed to garner any awards there. In 1971, it opened in theaters to decidedly mixed reviews. It was a commercial flop, both in the U.S. and the U.K., but Asher did receive a BAFTA acting nomination, in the category of Best Supporting Actress even though she is first billed and the female lead.

Asher both then and now is known foremost as the girlfriend of Paul McCartney prior to his meeting Linda Eastman. She is also the sister of Peter Asher of "Peter and Gordon" British invasion infamy. Yet Jane Asher was a movie actress since age 6, and in her heyday included supporting roles in such quality films as Alfie (1966).

John Moulder-Brown was also a former child actor, and appeared in director Skolimowski's next film King, Queen, Knave as well as the classic Room at the Top and the cult favorite Vampire Circus. Moulder-Brown's combination of innocence and mischief proved ideal for Deep End, although his boyish looks worked against him as an adult.

Deep End was unavailable except in repertory theaters for decades, but did appear recently on Turner Classic Movies, where I finally saw it. The user ratings are high and surprisingly consistent for both genders and all ages. The R-rated film may be mildly nostalgic for older viewers. The soundtrack includes one recording each by pop-folk singer Cat Stevens and the eclectic group Can.

How I felt about it. How things have changed. The idea that you could go to a bathhouse, molest a teenager, pay a 10 quid tip, and walk away without further consequences! Also curious is how Susan encourages underaged Mike's growing interest in her, even after it becomes obvious that he has a consuming crush on her. Susan may be trying to help Mike overcome a fear of sexual intimacy, which is apparent despite his youth and especially evident in his scene with willing schoolgirl Kathy (Anita Lochner).

Deep End has a surreal atmosphere to it, somewhat like A Clockwork Orange, which was released the same year. The latter achieved much greater commercial success, helped by a bigger budget, a flashy style, and a more prestigious director. Deep End is not as good, but it is a worthy effort, and a fascinating insight into puppy love gone wild.

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