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    Positively Cinemascopic

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    For its pictorially lavish first two 1953 Technicolor-hued releases in the breakthrough widescreen stereophonic-sound format of Cinemascope, Twentieth Century Fox went with historical pageantry in The Robe and fashionable glamour in How to Marry a Millionaire. Its third anamorphic-lens arrival would be an aquatic affair to “engulf you in the panoramic range of an underwater world you have never been part of before, the story of the intrepid adventurers who challenge the bottomless oceans for booty, for power, for love.” The love angle entered via screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (a noir specialist who had previously penned the source novel for They Drive by Night (1940) and the scripts for Thieves’ Highway (1949) and On Dangerous Ground (1952) with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) on the horizon), who worked into the fabric of this location-shot (above the waterline in Key West and Tarpon Springs, below the surface in the Bahamas) tale of rival sponge-diving clans a variation on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with the family-transgressing young lovers played by rising Fox contract player Robert Wagner and recent Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) Academy Award® nominee Terry Moore. In a jet-black wig, Wagner played Greek-American Tony Petrakis, whose boisterous patriarch (Gilbert Roland) gets the family into hotter waters when they go sponge-hunting in the turf dominated by the “Conches,” the brusque nickname for the Welsh-originated Rhys clan, headed by the steely Richard Boone, father to independent-minded daughter Gwyneth (Moore). Also adding to the local color and deep character-acting bench are J. Carrol Naish as Tony’s Uncle Socrates, Harry Carey Jr. as Gwyneth’s brother, Jacques Aubuchon as a wily moneylender and Peter Graves as a hot-tempered rival to Tony for Gwyneth’s affections. In his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart (written with Scott Eyman), Wagner said he particularly enjoyed working with Roland, then fresh off her career-highlight roles in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), emphasizing: “If Gilbert Roland was your friend, you had a man you could count on, in any situation.” Behind the scenes, Wagner’s off-screen life was not as smooth-sailing. 

    At the time, he was romantically involved with his Titanic (1953) co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Moore privately confessed to Wagner that she was with child, courtesy of her on-off paramour Howard Hughes. Wagner writes: “Obviously, she told a few other people as well, because the studio blindsided both of us by releasing a story that we were engaged! I was livid; for one thing, I was very involved with Barbara and called her from Tarpon Springs every night, while Terry was calling Hughes every night. Terry was also a much younger woman, and Barbara was – how to put this delicately? – not pleased about that. Beyond that, the studio was trying to railroad Terry and me into a marriage for its own convenience. There was nothing to do but be blunt. I told [Fox publicity chief] Harry Brand there was no chance of my marrying Terry, not then, not ever. Fox never actually retracted the stories so much as let them dry up. So the marriage to Terry Moore didn’t happen. For that matter, neither did the baby. Other than that, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was a very positive experience.” Also on the positive side of this box-office hit directed by Robert D. Webb (later to helm The Proud Ones and Love Me Tender) are the Oscar®-nominated color cinematography of Edward Cronjager and the lavishly orchestrated score by the inimitable Bernard Herrmann. In its notes for the film’s meticulously reconstructed sold-out soundtrack CD, the limited-edition Kritzerland label observed: “Herrmann employed nine harps, each with its own separate part. The score perfectly captures the mysterious underwater world – sinuous, hypnotic, flowing – a spellbinding tone poem that even today mesmerizes with its intense beauty. Since this was his first score to be recorded in multi-track stereo, Herrmann went so far as to include diagrams for instrument and microphone placement on his manuscript for the score. Needless to say, the resulting score remains one of Herrmann’s greatest.” Twilight Time’s resident audio wizard Mike Matessino, who restored and remixed that earlier effort, is on hand again to provide a sparkling and vividly realized Isolated Score Track in enveloping 3-track stereo for the upcoming release of Beneath the 12-Mile Reef in its original 2.55:1 glory on TT hi-def Blu-ray, which will also include 5.1 audio on the feature itself, plus the Biography episode Robert Wagner: Hollywood’s Prince Charming. Take a deep dive into movie history when it docks September 19. Preorders open September 6.