The Deep End is nowhere near as good as all the other critics said it was. It is not a bad movie, as late-summer offerings go, but it is a highly implausible one. And though implausibility is not enough to ruin a movie, not even a thriller (Vertigo, which is practically all implausibility, triumphs precisely for that reason), you know that something is wrong when you find yourself picking apart the unlikelihoods. As I watched Tilda Swinton haul the dead man's body into the family motorboat and then dump it on the shallow edge of Lake Tahoe--a glacial lake so deep that anything sunk in its center would never be recovered--I wondered how she could possibly have missed the useful instruction contained in the title of her own movie.
I can see what David Siegel and Scott McGehee--who co-directed and co-wrote the film--were trying to do with The Deep End; why they cast Swinton in the mother's role, why they chose to make the child at risk a homosexual son, and why they selected the gloomily beautiful Lake Tahoe as the movie's locale. They wanted us to be frightened for her, with her; they wanted us to admire her strength and yet sympathize with her distress; they wanted to create, between us and this woman, the same bond of anxious identification that prevailed between her and her teenage son. Siegel and McGehee wanted to make a dark, threatening movie that we would feel from the inside, almost as if it were happening to us. But that's exactly the kind of movie that needs to be well defended against its own implausibilities. For us to allow ourselves to be scared by a movie, we must see what the payoff would be. We must want to take the roller-coaster ride, believing that the filmmakers are going to let us down gently at the other end--or, at the very least, that they have given us a safe vehicle.
With The Deep End, there is no payoff in sight, and our vehicle--the central character--is a very flimsy one. Throughout the movie, Swinton looks like a drowned rat and behaves like a chicken with her head cut off. "Don't forget his car keys!" I hissed at her as she prepared to dump the dead man's body overboard. (We had already seen his bright red sports car, through her eyes, as she walked down to the lake before discovering the body; it's not the sort of detail you'd overlook in that sparsely populated area.) But she didn't listen to me and so had to dive for the keys, gaspingly searching the pockets of the submerged, staring corpse. How could I be expected to identify with a heroine who wouldn't cooperate with me on even the most basic level? How could I understand as reasonable a mother who, consciously or not, would rather have her son accused of murder than have his homosexuality come out in public? And why did her bond with him need to be such a masochistic one?
Part of the problem with The Deep End is that a much better movie, Max Ophuls's Reckless Moment, was made from the same novelistic material in 1949. I haven't seen The Reckless Moment for 12 years--not since James Harvey showed it as part of a film course he was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in 1989. But as I watched its unsatisfyingly bland twin, I remembered it well enough to recall that I had loved it. It featured James Mason as the blackmailer--a role taken in The Deep End by the dramatically handsome but relatively ineffectual Goran Visnjic--and instead of a gay son there was a rebellious daughter. The whole thing, I seemed to recall, had a much lighter feel than The Deep End and at the same time a much greater effect on me. I tried to rent it, but to no avail: The Reckless Moment is not readily available on video.
Luckily for me, James Harvey recently finished the book he had been working on for more than a decade, and in the absence of the movie itself, I could read about it in the bound galleys of Movie Love in the Fifties (coming out this month from Knopf). There are a few film writers who can evoke movies well enough to make you feel that you are watching them again, and Harvey is one of them. "What I set out to do here is to make you see them better," he says in the preface to Movie Love in the Fifties; and if you've read his Romantic Comedy, you will know exactly how he does it. Scene by scene and line by line, he takes us through the most important moments of a film "as it moves and changes and makes its points in front of us, as we experience it, not so much as we think and talk about it later." Whether he's escorting us through Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Orson Welles's Magnificent Ambersons, or any one of a dozen other great films from the period, he lends us an astuteness of analysis and a power of observation that we couldn't have had on our own.
About The Reckless Moment, he says that
this modest and not-very-thrilling thriller is one of the most moving and powerful films ever made about the American family. . . . James Mason is a blackmailer who falls in love with his victim, Joan Bennett, an upper-middle-class suburban housewife. It all starts when Bennett's spoiled teenage daughter, in a quarrel with her middle-aged boyfriend, . . . accidentally kills him, pushing him off the landing of the family boathouse, leaving the body impaled on an anchor in the sands below.
Suddenly the whole movie came back to me--not only the fact that the Swinton role had been played by the uncrushably energetic Joan Bennett, but also that it was James Mason who first began to fall in love. (In The Deep End, the pathetic housewife is initially attracted to the dashing blackmailer, rather than vice versa.) Harvey also reminded me how funny much of The Reckless Moment is. When Mason keeps threatening her with his evil accomplice, Nagle, Bennett intelligently questions the existence of this person. "You're on your own, you might as well admit it," she challenges him. To which Mason responds: "We're all involved with each other. You have your family, I have my Nagle." Harvey not only quotes this exchange to excellent effect; he also points out how closely Max Ophuls's rhythms, in this scene and elsewhere, mimic those in the comedies directed by his friend Preston Sturges.
But if The Reckless Moment is more humorous than The Deep End (well, nothing could be less humorous), it is also more profoundly despairing about the lives it holds up for our examination. Swinton is not alone with her unhappiness at the end; she has her son to console her (creepy as that relationship may be). And if we identify with her motherliness, as the movie wants us to do, we accept as necessary the distress and anxiety that go with the maternal role. But in the Ophuls version, Bennett has acted all along without her daughter's knowledge, though on her daughter's behalf (and a daughter, in any case, would not have provided the same familial/sexual ballast that Jonathan Tucker, as Swinton's son, provides). After Bennett loses Mason in the end--under circumstances quite similar to the self-sacrificing death of The Deep End's Visnjic--Bennett is alone in her room, crying. The phone rings downstairs, and it is her husband Tom calling long-distance. Harvey describes the scene eloquently:
Once again it is time not-to-worry Tom. She takes the phone . . . and begins to speak, her voice breaking but in control: "Tom--we mailed your Christmas packages. . . . Everything is fine, except we miss you terribly. . . . Yes, Tom," gradually declining as she speaks until she's sitting down, Ophuls's camera descending with her, until you're looking at her finally through the thick banisters of the stairway, as she sinks under the weight of these comforting words to Tom, and the music and the end title rise together.
This final image of her--behind bars, as it were--makes a nice black-comic fadeout. . . . It's as if the filmmaker, with this witty summarizing image, were suddenly "speaking" directly to you, here at the end; as if you were suddenly, if momentarily, alone with him, the way you can be with a poet or novelist or painter.
But that, as Harvey repeatedly shows us, is what movies were like in those days--not all movies, certainly, but the few great ones. It is not fair, I realize, to beat The Deep End with the stick of The Reckless Moment; we can't expect every thriller to be a masterpiece. It is salutary, though, to be reminded that distance, humor, and a wry sense of the ludicrous were once essential elements of even our melodramas. Perhaps today's serious young filmmakers (like today's serious young painters, poets, and novelists) are trying too earnestly to plumb the depths, when what they really need is a bit of the playful glimmer that can be found only on the reflective surface.