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The third (some sources say the second) movie filmed in Darryl Zanuck's bet-the-farm 'miracle' format CinemaScope is Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, 20th- Fox's Christmas release for 1953. The colorful outdoors adventure was nominated for Best Cinematography, probably because the Academy was impressed by the glorious vistas of Florida sunsets and underwater life in 'Scope and Technicolor. The film hasn't seen much appreciation over the years, as it was considered to be in the Public Domain. All that circulated were poor pan-scan copies of what was originally an ultra-wide 2.66:1 screen ratio. In the last few years widescreen copies have been shown on cable stations, yet still in blurry, flat-letterboxed transfers. We weren't holding out much hope for this release, for the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives MOD program has been frustrating disc buyers by releasing old pan-scan transfers. The happy news is that this new disc is quite a pleasant surprise. More on this below.
Zanuck committed everything to CinemaScope, in a campaign that almost immediately made the anamorphic lens system available to other studios as well. The earliest C-'Scope productions showed off big stars but also impressed audiences with wide screen spectacle and stereophonic sound. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef took the new process on location, with a cast of character actors led by the up 'n' coming star Robert Wagner, in his first leading role.
Esteemed author and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides gave all of his screen work a socially critical edge, and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef comes off as a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Bezzerides' own Thieves' Highway, a scathing indictment of cutthroat business practices among Greeks, Poles and Italians in the produce trade. On the West Coast of Florida, the partially assimilated Greek immigrant Mike Petrakis (Gilbert Roland) makes a living diving for sponges. Mike's wife and his daughter Penny (Angela Clarke & Gloria Gordon) wait for Mike's boat Aegli to come in, but Mike is not getting the good sponges these days. To find a better catch Mike, his first mate "Soak" Houlis (J. Carrol Naish) and his son Tony (Robert Wagner) slip into the shallows of a Key West area illegally held as exclusive by the Anglo fishermen as represented by Thomas Rhys (Richard Boone). After the Petrakis boat has filled up with sponges, the piratical Anglos Arnold Dix and Griff Rhys (Peter Graves & Harry Carey Jr.) steal the entire catch by threatening to cut Mike's oxygen line with an axe. Back in town, Mike can do little against the gang-like Anglos, (sometimes called Conchs). But the handsome young Tony captures the eye of Thomas Rhys' mischievous daughter Gwyneth (Terry Moore), much to the consternation of the jealous Arnold, Gwyneth's steady. Desperate for a marketable catch, Mike takes his crew to the notorious 12-Mile Reef, a deep dive with treacherous currents. Tony wants badly to start diving himself, while the hate-filled Arnold Dix is looking for any reason to strike back against Tony and the Petrakis clan.
Handsomely filmed, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is given fairly active direction by Robert D. Webb, a former assistant- and 2nd unit director who made a number of 'Scope movies for Fox, including the well known Elvis debut vehicle Love Me Tender. Although none of them appear to be authentic Greeks, the actors playing the Petrakis family generate a lot of enthusiasm: Mexican Gilbert Roland's paterfamilias is every bit as lusty as Greek characters played by fellow Mexican Anthony Quinn. Irishman J. Carrol Naish yet again proves himself capable of playing any ethnic extraction to perfection. After paying his dues in two years' worth of featured bits and supporting parts, the lean and muscular All-American screen idol Robert Wagner turns on the charm under a big crop of extra-curly Greek hair. Wagner's broad smile does most of the work, but he and Terry Moore work up one or two reasonably frisky courting scenes.
Sponge fishing in itself isn't all that exciting on film, as the little critters apparently don't put up much of a fight. To compensate Beneath the 12-Mile Reef throws plenty of breathtaking scenery, exotic underwater photography and a few ethnic ceremonies our way. A Greek Orthodox priest tosses a heavy cross into the water, and all the Greek boys rush to retrieve it. When Tony wins he receives a personal public blessing. As the Anglo thugs have sewn up the good fishing areas, the Greeks must fight for their place in the "free economy". Thomas Rhys doesn't mind seeing the Greeks ripped off once in a while, but the jealous Arnold pushes things over the top, beating up Tony and inadvertently setting fire to the Petrakis' boat while stealing a second load of sponges. In the end Tony is the Petrakis male that must make peace with the Conchs, and risk his life in the depths of the dangerous reef.
It's fun to see character actors Richard Boone and Peter Graves playing heavies as they attempt to get their careers rolling. Graves is the main creep, while Boone's Anglo authority figure is just trying to keep those pesky Greeks in line. Writer Bezzerides' story isn't the acid-penned indictment of his Thieves' Highway but it is pretty frank about ethnic bigotry in economic crunch times. Were it made in a less politically repressed year, the script might have included lines about the working class encouraged to struggle among themselves, while the bosses get rich, and so forth. That aspect of the show draws direct comparison to Louis Malle's bitter movie about similar economic thug-bigotry, Alamo Bay. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef doesn't carry any major surprises -- boy avoids giant octopus, boy fights off villain, boy gets girl -- but its story framework is solid enough. It is amusing that when Tony decides he's man enough to don the diving suit, he's shown doing something presumably adult and mature: smoking a cigarette like his Pop.
With apologies to Mr. Wagner (who is pretty cute on selected episodes of TV's NCIS), the big appeal of Beneath the 12-Mile Reef nowadays is for movie soundtrack fans. Bernard Herrmann's impressive music score is almost wall-to-wall in this movie and amounts to a 105-minute concert with dialogue and effects just getting in the way. Herrmann fleshes out almost every scene with his dynamic, unusual themes, even offering his take on ethnic Greek tunes. He did not compose one featured song called "Yiati Yiati." Its music and lyrics are by James Harakas and Andrew Ladas.
The first CinemaScope features all carried 4-track stereophonic sound, which tended to be LOUD and dramatic. Impressive Bernard Herrmann music scores also adorn the fourth CinemaScope film King of the Khyber Rifles as well as the next year's Garden of Evil and parts of The Egyptian.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives Burn On Demand DVD-R of Beneath the 12-Mile Reef comes as a welcome surprise. As of this writing the Screen Archive Entertainment listing says the disc is "screen Format: 4x3 and Aspect Ratio: 1.33". The disc packaging contradicts that with, "4:3 letterboxed". But have no fear, the review disc supplied Savant is enhanced widescreen and clearly a much-improved transfer than what's been showing on TCM cable. Colors are excellent. Even the Day For Night scenes are timed appropriately darkly.
Readers probably want to know more about the disc audio. I put the disc in an Apple drive, and the left-right channel readout indicates that it is in at least two-channel stereo -- at least the music is. The track is strong and bright. I think I've heard a majority of Herrmann's feature scores, and it was a pleasure treating my ears to this new collection of dynamic themes.
Incidentally, the new package also carries a 2013 Copyright notice, which may or may not mean that Fox has re-established legal title to the film. This cut of Reef includes a full fight scene said to have been trimmed on some cable TV showings. This presentation includes a bit in which Mike Petrakis pins Arnold Dix to the ground and makes him eat a cigar. Cinema Archives offers no extras. I've been getting reader notes for years about the lack of a quality Beneath the 12-Mile Reef video in any format. It would be nice to imagine Twilight Time releasing Blu-rays of this movie and Garden of Evil with Isolated Score Tracks, but until that happens this disc is well worth nabbing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.