BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF hooked an Oscar nomination for Cinematography in 1953 (losing to Shane ). While it’s nice to look at, that spot on the roster was probably a studio push because it was one of the first CinemaScope films and Fox was hyping their expensive new process like gangbusters. It sure wouldn’t get any awards (of the applause kind) for its acting, writing or directing. It has one standout attribute in Bernard Herrmann’s expansive music score.
Florida’s Gulf Coast: a Greek-American family sponge-diving operation runs afoul of cut-throat competition from a group of surly Anglo fishermen. Throw in a girl, some lovely sunsets, a little badly choreographed fist-fighting, underwater bubbles, a plot-turning case of the bends and a brief tangle with a big octopus.
Robert D. Webb had deservedly been honored with an Oscar for 1938s In Old Chicago, in the since-discontinued Assistant Director category, giving shape and verve to the climactic fire spectacle, but you wouldn’t know it from watching his patchy work over the 102-minutes of this leaky vessel. He wasn’t helped by a poor screenplay from A.I. Bezzerides, who invented a prejudice subplot (Anglos vs. Greeks) that was misplaced historically and shoehorned in a clumsy romance angle. Since the movie concerns the slow-moving actions of sponge divers, he probably felt he needed to kitchen-sink it. Trite stuff.
The Ouch Factor is increased exponentially by leads Robert Wagner and Terry Moore, who are both terrible (and looking hairstyle-ridiculous to boot).* Wagner had decent supporting role that year in Titanic, but in his first lead his callowness shows up in bright relief. Moore is about as appealing as an empty shrimp basket, murdering her lines with a fake fervor nearly unmatched in a decade chocked full of bra-centered scenery chompers. Campy virility comes through Gilbert Roland (cue the chest hair forest & cigar mauling). There’s typically on-target accent work from J.Carrol Naish and rather weak supporting gigs from bad guys Richard Boone and Peter Graves. Lusty ethnic’y declarations and hearty backslapping. The kind of movie where Instantaneous Flirting lurches immediately into a laughing chase through palm trees.
It’s all announced with an exuberant flourish in Bernard Herrmann’s main theme, doing justice to the whole majesty-of-the-depths concept, and throughout his scoring does its best to pump life into the talky nonsense. He was really cooking that year with two more rousing adventure soundtracks— a good one for White Witch Doctor and a great job on King Of The Khyber Rifles. The Academy ignored all three.
With Angela Clarke, Jay Novello, Jacques Aubuchon and Harry Carey Jr. Filmed on location in Tarpon Springs, Key West and the Bahamas at a cost of $1,560,000, it brought in enough teenagers with crushes on Wagner to gross $10,900,000, the 13th most seen picture show of the year.
*Funny comment from critic Paul Mavis on Wagner’s ‘Greek’ curled hair, calling it a “cross between the comic’s Dondi and actress Ruth Roman”. Mavis does a sterling full-scale harvesting of this sponge in his review at DVD Talk.