BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1953) Twilight Time
Director Robert D. Webb’s Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) is the tale of the Capulets and the Montagues…er, excuse me – the Greeks and the Conch, divided along family lines of Petrakis and Rhys. Ah me, young love – imperfect, and rather incongruously resolved with Hollywood’s affinity for the proverbial ‘happy ending’ in A.I. Bezzerides’ mangled screenplay – a mishmash of Shakespeare meets the beach blanket movie, later to be made popular by Annette Funnicello and Frankie Avalon. Beneath the 12 Mile Reef sports some very impressive cinematography from Edward Cronjager, and an as exhilarating and oft moody score by Bernard Herrmann. Beyond this, alas, it has terribly little to offer the first-time viewer, and virtually nothing to merit a return to its sun-kissed shores. The real problem here is casting. We get a nubile Terry Moore as the perpetually perky-bosomed Gwyneth Rhys and an exceptionally skinny Robert Wagner, with Harpo Marx-like ebony curls, masquerading rather unconvincingly as a Hellenic sponge fisherman. The plot is wafer-thin: Tony Petrakis (Wagner) is forced to take up the family biz after his father, Mike (Gilbert Roland) dies while attempting a dive off 12 Mile Reef; the same spot where his elder son, Peter (whom we never meet) lost his life.
The real star of Beneath the 12 Mile Reef is Cinemascope. In only its third outing as the ‘new’ shape of things to come, the elongated anamorphic frame provides unequivocal advantages when photographing the natural splendors of Florida’s sandy and palmed Gulf Coast; also, it’s clear-water depths lurking just beneath those smooth as glass, sun-lit surfaces. Even Tony’s penultimate battle with a rubber squid looks impressive in Technicolor and widescreen. Alas, Webb’s handling of what goes on above sea level is not nearly as accomplished, nor as engaging. At times, it can still look very impressive; gorgeous palms lazily swaying in an afternoon breeze or silhouetted sailboats against a blazing sunset: everything appropriately humid and break out the drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Regrettably, at nearly every turn Bezzerides’ screenplay disappoints with colossally stupid dialogue and clumsily strung together plot twists. Ditto for Terry Moore and Robert Wagner, each attractive enough but dull as paint in their performances. Both were contract players at 2oth Century-Fox. Time would reveal Wagner’s to be the more indestructible career, despite Fox’s best attempts to derail it by casting him in a series of idiotic walk-ons in disposable programmers or worse, star him in laughably lavish spectacles like Prince Valiant (1954); the one where Wagner sported form-fitting tights (exaggerating his rather scrawny legs) and a sugar bowl haircut (think Moe Howard meets the Knights of the Round Table).
Herein, we get Wagner feigning beefiness; “Adonis Petrakis. I’m a very beautiful young man.” This line is repeated several times throughout the picture, presumably to confirm a male virility otherwise not immediately on display. I don’t suppose the ego-driven Tony ever heard of modesty – false or otherwise – or the late Irving Thalberg’s adage, ‘credit you give yourself is not worth a damn.’ In his youth, Robert Wagner was undeniably a very handsome fellow. And there is no denying that, left to his own devices – and hair color, Wagner’s sex appeal as Fox’s hot young stud was decidedly what kept his reputation alive in these early tests of endurance while he continued to hone his craft as an actor. But he really is out of his element and depth here. No Greek accent – not even an attempt at one. To see him interacting with Roland’s lustily interpreted Mike, J. Carrol Naish’s convincing comic relief, as first mate Socrates ‘Soc’ Houlis, or even standing beside Angela Clarke’s ‘mama’ is to highly question whether Mrs. Petrakis’ baby was not mistakenly switched at birth at the hospital with some offspring belonging to a well-heeled WASP from Scarsdale. Wagner’s American swagger is deliriously misguided. I don’t think even Wagner believes it when he stretches out his undernourished arms to reveal an as anemic chest to ingratiate Tony to his future father-in-law, Thomas Rhys (Richard Boone) by saying, “Just look who you have for a son-in-law…me; Adonis Petrakis…I’m a very beautiful young man.”
Of course, the real misfire here is not Wagner’s but Bezzerides’ as the screenplay repeatedly sets up, then deflates conflict between the Greeks and the Conch, intermittently playing for empathy while achieving very little pathos. The biggest scene in the picture – Mike’s untimely passing from decompression sickness (a.k.a. ‘the bends’) is handled with a sort or brave matter-of-fact-ness. Tony walks off to express his isolated disbelief in private before turning hopeful to the future as his own boss; albeit, after stealing Thomas’ boat and daughter and heading for the Glades – off limit to ‘his kind’. Worse, there is no steam in the conflict between the inexplicably brutish Arnold Dix (Peter Graves) and Tony. These two adversaries meet not-so-cute at one of the Conch’s local watering holes. Mike, brokers a truce with Thomas after Arnie and his boys have absconded with all the sponges they labored to find in the Glades. As the barkeep has already telephoned the police to avoid a brawl, Tony exploits this rare opportunity to dance tightly with Arnie’s girl; Gwyneth. She finds him brash, but sexy. Alas, all this hugging gets Arnie’s blood to a simmer; a volatile mixture of jealousy and racism brought to a boil after Arnie witnesses Gwyneth smooching with ‘the Greek’. As payback, Arnie later deprives Tony, not only of the last sponge harvest that claimed Mike’s life, but also his livelihood when the Petrakis’ boat catches fire during their clumsy raid. Afterwards, we do get a couple of truncated fight scenes to punctuate the animosity between these young bucks; the first, ending with Arnie senselessly pummeling Tony; the second, capped by a daring rescue after Arnie becomes entangled in kelp and seaweed beneath the waves, nearly to drown without Tony’s noble assist.
Beneath the 12 Mile Reef opens with a series of gorgeous establishing shots off Florida’s Gulf Coast, by day or sunset, looking absolutely ravishing in Technicolor. We regress to another abysmal expedition for Greek-American sponge fisherman, Mike Petrakis, his son and crew. Their boat, the Aegli has only just returned to Tarpon Springs with another modest harvest; mama and Tony's sister, Penny (Gloria Gordon) eagerly awaiting their return. Also looming in the backdrop is money-lender, Demetrios Sofotes (Jacques Aubuchon). Sofotes has leant Mike over $12,000.00 and although he is a patient man, he does rather indirectly threaten to reclaim the Aegli that Mike has used as collateral should he be unable to float the loan. This pang worsens as a rival vessel, the Helios, has brought in a king’s ransom of coral sponges taken from 12-Mile Reef, the precise location where Mike’s elder son, Peter met with an untimely end several years ago. While the Helios fetches a handsome price for its loot during the bidding wars, Mike’s modest assortment of sponges barely earns him $600.00 – half he has to pay to Sofotes to keep him happy.
At the annual Greek Orthodox Church Epiphany festival, Tony receives a special blessing for his family by winning an underwater diving contest to recover the Bishop’s cross. Tony’s victory is taken by Mike as a sign, better fishing days lay ahead of them. As the waters around Tarpon Springs have been over-farmed for sponges Mike elects to sail the Aegli to the Glades, unofficially off-limits to Greeks. Ignoring Socrates’ forewarning about a modest rowboat in their midst portending of disaster, Mike dives below and collects a handsome bounty of sponges. Regrettably, the rowboat has come to put an end to their plunder; Arnold Dix and Griff Rhys (Harry Carey Jr.) working on behalf of Griff’s father, Thomas to discourage outsiders from farming their territory. Arnie threatens to cut Mike’s air hose with an axe unless Tony hands over all their sponges. Humiliated, but having no recourse, Tony gives away his father’s hard-earned collection. Later, Mike, Tony and Socrates arrive at a local watering hole to confront Thomas and his men. A barroom brawl is narrowly averted. But Arnie becomes jealous after Tony seizes the opportunity to dance with Gwyneth. This, in turn, becomes the catalyst for Mike to confront Arnie without his axe. In front of Tony and Gwyneth, Mike demolishes Arnie in a spirited display of fisticuffs, capped off by forcing Arnie to eat an old cigar.
More desperate than ever for a good catch, Mike sails the Aegli to 12-Mile Reef. Regrettably, fate’s hand has not yet finished with the Petrakis clan. For, just as the family’s eldest boy, Peter died while pursuing the family’s ambition to mine the area for sponges, Mike now suffers a fatal accident beneath the waves; slipping on the reef and losing compression. He rises too quickly to the surface and dies of ‘the bends’ shortly after being taken to a nearby hospital. While Tony wanders off to mourn his father’s untimely passing, Arnie and Griff loot the Aegli along with another group of American fishermen. In their scuffle the Aegli is set ablaze and nearly destroyed. Afterwards, Gwyneth takes Tony to Thomas. As none of the aforementioned events is known to him, Thomas, an upstanding member of the community, is appalled to discover his own son and Arnie were responsible for the raid on the Aegli. In front of everyone Thomas makes a solemn pledge to Tony. He will receive all the money he is owed for his cache of sponges the next morning. Too bad Arnie does not feel the same way. Instead, he hunts down Tony and beats him senseless, vowing never to give back the money and ordering him to leave town immediately. Disgusted by his behavior, Gwyneth helps Tony aboard the Conch and together they sail, first to Tarpon Springs, where Tony introduces Gwyneth to his mother and sister, and then, with Socrates and Gwyneth in tow, valiantly toward 12-Mile Reef in search of new adventures and treasure.
The reef is beautiful, but deadly, as Tony discovers when he is forced to do battle with a giant squid. Escaping death with a trove of sponges, Tony resurfaces to find Thomas, Arnie and his crew fast approaching. In the interim it appears as though Arnie has managed to turn Thomas’ heart to stone. The men are now out for revenge. Boarding the Conch, Arnie wastes no time engaging Tony in another fist fight. Their struggle sends both men over the side, Tony emerging victorious after Arnie becomes ensnared in some kelp and seaweed. Tony dives down and frees Arnie from the entanglement surely to have otherwise claimed his life. Resurfacing together, the men are hoisted aboard the Conch by Socrates and Thomas. Asked by her father were her allegiance lies, Gwyneth confesses she has married Tony. Momentarily embittered by this discovery, Thomas’ ire is inexplicably diffused by Tony’s toothy grin and his solemn oath to love Gwyneth honorably. The men shake hands, seemingly, with all animosity between them set aside for good.
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is a middling effort at best. That said, it was also a huge hit for Fox. Evidently, the allure of Darryl F. Zanuck’s patented widescreen process preceded its’ other shortcomings. It’s a shame too, because A.I. Bezzerides is a much better screenwriter than this. There are still two stars in this movie. But neither appears in front of the camera. Edward Cronjager’s luminous cinematography transcends the rather pedestrian material, filling the screen with brightly lit crystal blue-watered and vivaciously green tropical landscapes. I have been to the Gulf Coast. But it never looked quite this lurid in real life. The experience in Cinemascope and Technicolor is magical and escapist. Bernard Herrmann’s music is the other star of our show: first rate, but utterly wasted on this flimsy narrative. Without Herrmann’s magnificence cues, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef would be a very weak-kneed excursion indeed. Alas, Bob Wagner and Terry Moore are less than appealing. Fun to look at; don’t get me wrong – but leaden to a fault. There is no romantic chemistry beyond the clench of young, taut bodies occasionally pressed up close together. Tony and Gwyneth’s is a passionless affair. So, we are left with the ‘adventure’ aspects of our story – short-lived, though expertly executed – if slightly soured by Mike’s death. In the final analysis, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef never goes beyond the hook and worm stage of good solid storytelling. Pity that.
Twilight Time’s Limited Edition region free Blu-ray is extremely impressive with minor caveats. The vibrant hues of Technicolor are extraordinarily realized throughout this 1080p transfer. For the underwater sequences an Aquaflex camera was employed with extremely effective – and colorful results. I detected no unnatural blue/teal push (for which far too many of Fox’s Cinemascope 1080p transfers coming down the pike have inexplicably suffered). Now, if we could only get Fox to remaster and re-reissue The Best of Everything, The Blue Max, The King & I, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Anastasia (1956), The Black Swan (1942) and Desk Set with properly remastered DeLuxe color. But I digress. Colors here are generally warm with flesh occasionally leaning towards orange. But actually, the color is pretty solid and exceedingly rich. There is plenty of good, solid detail also throughout this transfer and contrast has been rendered with care, along with film grain. No age-related artifacts to speak of and no digital anomalies either. So, overall, a winning effort. There are a handful of shots looking a tad muddier and grainier. One can only suspect the vintage film stock did not hold up well. No fault of the transfer and, given how sporadically it occurs, totally forgivable. We get a 5.1 DTS of the original 4.0 Westrex stereo. There is also a 2.0 DTS. Predictably, the 4.0 sounds more robust, really utilizing the vintage Bernard Herrmann score to its fullest potential. Extras are limited to an A&E Biography on Robert Wagner: Hollywood’s Prince Charming. I used to love watching Biography. At 42 min. it packs a lot of dense history with a ton of vintage clips – alas, poorly contrasted and not worn well at all, some even interlaced. But informative, nonetheless. Bottom line: Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is a movie for die hard Bob Wagner fans only. It’s impressively photographed and underscored, but has virtually no staying power. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)