BR: Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1952)

October 18, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 19, 2017

Genre:  Adventure / Romance / Drama

Synopsis: In a variation on “Romeo & Juliet,” tensions mount when a Greek-American sponge diver falls for the daughter of a Floridian conch fisherman.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / “Robert Wagner: Hollywood’s Prince Charming” (44:01) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Fox’s 3rd CinemaScope film is a visual stunner – more beautiful than the format’s debut with The Robe and the portraiture that dominated How to Marry a Millionaire – plus it’s a perfect cast, written, and produced work of romance and escapism set in Key West’s Greek community.

Veteran screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly) took the bare plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and fashioned a contemporary version of Greek sponge divers vs. whitebread conch divers, with tensions ignited after patriarch Mike Petrakis (ever charismatic Gilbert Roland) decides the team must cross an unwritten border and venture into the everglades where a wealth of sponges reside. Caught by their conch nemeses led by Thomas Rhys (Richard Boone), their lives are threatened, their bounty confiscated and sold off, and they’ve no money to cover a hefty outstanding loan on their boat.

When the group enters town in search of their sponges, Mike’s son Tony (Robert Wagner topped with Mediterranean curls) meets Rhys’ fetching daughter Gwyneth (Terry Moore), pricking the jealousy of pushy wannabe fiancé Arnold Dix (snarling Peter Graves), who causes serious harm to the family when Tony’s pop dies after a diving mishap. After Gwyneth absconds with her father’s boat captained by Tony, Rhys goes on a hunt, determined to end the improper union between bronze and ivory.

In what could’ve been a schmaltzy, predictable, studio-bound melodrama, director Robert D. Webb seems to have insisted the entire production take place on location, milking the area’s authenticity and filming all underwater scenes outside of the studio. With the exception of one obvious process shot – perhaps a missed shoot or bungled footage – everything was pretty much filmed out under the sun, at sunset and dawn, and in real bars, pubs, and houses. The effort may not have been to create a docu-drama, but as a showcase for dramatic widescreen drama, Reef still holds its own as one of the most beautifully shot and lit CinemaScope productions, and a film where every dime appears onscreen and in the sound mix.

Wagner playing a Greek ‘Adonis’ is innately ridiculous, but he’s perfectly cast in one of his best roles, and ebullient, cheeky ball of energy who uses his big mouth to cut down tension; he may not be a good fighter, but he makes two scenes in which Tony disarms tough guy Boone with a joke believable. Roland is marvelous as a sunburned lifelong diver, and his short, poetic speech to a sleepy yet over-anxious Tony about the lure of the depths and the dangers below is a highpoint in the film, and one of several examples of great screenwriting; precise words that allow the actors to give credibility to otherwise familiar archetypes.

Small nuances also give the characters resonance, such as the preparation of the diver, like a warrior doing battle with nature’s unknown monsters below. When Petrakis is ready to plunge into the ocean depths, he hands his cigar to loyal pal and first mate Socrates (scene-stealer J. Carrol Naish), fits his hat carefully to ensure no itchy spots, and readies for the metal helmet to be slotted in place – a routine mimicked by Tony when it’s his turn to take the mantle after Petrakis dies slowly and horribly from the bends. The death is portentously hinted through a brief exchange, but Roland’s writhing in agony makes the ordeal quite horrific; and when Tony’s standing besides his father’s corpse, Bernard Herrmann’s stunning score throbs long, sustained low chords to hammer home the tragedy.

Deliberate or through a creative choice by Webb, Herrmann’s music is the sound design for the underwater scenes, and while there are sound effects, it’s the elegant mass of harps and strings which immediately evoke the mysterious underwater beauty described by Petrakis in that key scene; everything in that exchange comes alive through Herrmann’s exquisite interpretation, with the orchestral colours bending light, tickling audiences with a flowing undercurrent of plucked notes, and the passing sea creatures with undulating chords.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports an isolated stereo music track, making it a treat to sample Herrmann’s score – the heroic port arrival music, underwater scenery, and a deadly gorgeous love theme – in uncompressed DTS. The long sequence in which Tony moves from his dead father to a small oceanside garden with Gwyneth to find and grab his father’s sailor cap is devastating.

Cinematographer Edward Cronjager was nominated for an Oscar, and one would expect this film alone would be a career-maker, but fragile health reportedly sent the cinematographer to TV, shooting the rare feature until his sudden death in 1960 at 56.

Conjager pretty much stepped into TV after lensing Siege at Red River (1954), but he was clearly a gifted cinematographer whose lighting made glossy CinemaScope look natural and elegant. A simple scene where Tony introduces Gwyneth to his mother was shot in a real living room, but the colours are both vibrant and natural; and right from the opening shot it’s clear effort was made to capture images at peak moments during sunset, sunrise, and nighttime.

The daylight scenes on the ocean are gorgeous – deep blues are soft and comforting – and the sharp colours stem from the high contrast natural light which created both detail and dense colours. Blacks are especially magnificent in this HD transfer – deep, rich, and especially detailed in a shot where Tony holds his mourning mother at the grave, and the light filtering through the palms casts small light petals that are never hot.

It sounds like much ado about basic cinematography, but the visuals are so exceptionally crafted by a forgotten cinematographer who also shot the mossy Lure of the Wilderness (1952), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and the stark noir classic I Wake Up Screaming (1941).

Cronjager’s underwater cinematography is equally stunning – it’s likely Fox made use of outtakes in later films and as stock footage best sellers – and Webb managed to find a balance between giving the new widescreen format the images it could capture, but offering a normal variation of shot sizes and movement, which prior filmmakers seemed hesitant. Cronjager must have seen the ‘CinemaScope mumping’ effect on faces and slight warping at the frame edges, because these are minimized through careful shot composition and movement.

It also helps that underwater there’s no sense of medium and wide shots nor warping because the constant movement of objects distracts, and any lens aberrations are hidden by the already wavy sea vegetation and weird coral formations. Webb’s underwater montages are tightly edited but never feel hurried, and great tension comes from the perfect integration of POV and diver shots – a signal editor Bill Reynolds was adept in finding those sweet spots for ‘invisible’ cuts. Reynolds’ later work included Oscars for The Sting (1973) and The Sound of Music (1965), and he’s perhaps the only editor hired or willing to tackle a series of big budget disasters: Heaven’s Gate (1980), Pirates (1986), and Ishtar (1987).

Gwyneth is the only memorable female role in the picture: Tony’s mom (Angela Clarke) is always worried, and his sister Penny (Gloria Gordon) mostly stands around looking supportive. (Gordon would retire the following year after appearing in her second credited role in A Man Called Peter.) It’s also easy to chuckle at the ethnic portrayals, but Wagner’s big grin kind of lessens their preciousness, and Bezzerides’ script is especially well organized and paced; one is even willing to tolerate the nonsense giant octopus at the end, and the clichéd rescue that turns the film’s main villain – jilted wannabe fiancé Arnold – into an A-okay guy.

Fox’s restoration of the film in HD is remarkable – the film tended to look grainy and soft in prior home video editions, and ersatz public domain editions looked like utter crap – and the 2.0 and 5.1 mixes are quite vibrant. The surround sound mix is designed to evoke the original 4.0 Perspecta mix in which the audio surrounds audiences whenever a character or the camera plunges underwater. Cronjager’s compositions are radiant in this Blu-ray, and it’s clear he was a natural for technical challenges, given this was his first widescreen film, shot when CinemaScope was still 2.55:1 instead of its later 2.35:1 standard.

Fox’s prior 2013 MOD release was bare bones on extras but reportedly featured a strong 2.0 sound mix and is the same uncut print. (Prior TV airings were reportedly shorter, with a fight scene in which Petrakis forced Arnold to eat a cigar excised.)

Twlight Time’s BR lacks a theatrical trailer, but they’ve added a docu-portrait of Wagner produced by Fox in 1999. Narrated by Peter Graves, Robert Wagner: Hollywood’s Prince Charming is a genial overview of the actor who grew up as one of two siblings to a wealthy Detroit paint magnate, and discovered a passion for acting after the family moved to California.

Wagner doesn’t appear in the piece (but he did provided personal reflection on the studio system in Fox’s 2003 Titanic DVD), but interviews span his three daughters, wife Jill St. John, longtime friends Richard Widmark, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Mike Myers, and a wealth of archival footage, plus rare costume test footage from an aborted period melodrama Lord Vanity, with assigned costar Joan Collins. (The footage stems from a 1997 AMC special, Hidden Hollywood: Treasures From the 20th Century Fox Film Vaults.)

As outlined in Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, Wagner and Moore would appear in several Fox productions as their separate careers blossomed – Broken Lance (1954) and Peyton Place (1957) being their respective biggies – and Roland later co-starred in the noirish diving suspenser Underwater! (1955) which featured more rear projection and studio-bound scenes for what was RKO’s own rival widescreen format, branded as SuperScope.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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