A British–West German co-production, filmed in London and Bavaria, and written and directed by a Pole, you might question this being a British film. But it is entirely set in London with the main roles going to English actors, so that’ll do for me. Beware, though, that a number of smaller roles went to German actors and some of their dubbed dialogue veers towards the dodgy at the start of the film.

Shy, inarticulate and clumsy, Mike (John Moulder-Brown), is fifteen but comes across as immature even for that age. Fresh out of school, he finds employment as a male attendant at a municipal public bathhouse and pool. Here, locals often go to have their weekly scrub-up, and he sometimes gets the chance to collect tips from clients for ‘special services’ rendered.

His first experience of this comes via a middle-aged platinum blonde (Diana Dors) who visits to get some sexual kicks by pathetically trying to enact a George Best fantasy with a clearly confused Mike. Like Friends, a 1971 film soundtracked by Elton John which I watched recently, it can make for some uncomfortable viewing due to the screen age of certain cast members, so I should point out that Moulder-Brown himself was 17 during the shoot.

Female attendant Susan (Jane Asher) shows him the ropes and he becomes besotted with her. It’s easy to imagine a teenage boy going down this line. Even though she’s maybe a decade older and already engaged, he somehow gets it into his head that a relationship with her might be on the cards – although you’d guess there’s as much chance of this happening as me beating Jane Asher in a cake making competition (I am, though, hoping to perfect my Buckforest Gateau recipe in time for Christmas).

In addition to her fiancé, Susan’s also involved with an older married man, a pervy PE teacher whose jobs include taking schoolgirls to the pool for swimming lessons. Judging by his behaviour as he does so, he may have become involved with Susan when she was his pupil.

Mike takes his infatuation – which he mistakes for love – to an extreme level. His working hours are spent with Susan and at night much of his time is devoted to spying on her.

In 2007, in a Sight & Sound feature on cinematic hidden gems, critic David Thompson chose Deep End. ‘Skolimowski’s direction is extravagant, crude and tender by turns, slapping the audience in the face with its insouciance and weird wit,’ he wrote, before adding: ‘Today the soundtrack by Can and Cat Stevens would probably win a high cool rating.’ I’m not sure why anybody would consider Cat Stevens cool but Thompson was certainly right about hipster favourites Can – credited here as The Can – whose Mother Sky perfectly soundtracks a particularly feverish segment of the film set in Soho, with Mike out on stalking duties again, having discovered that Susan’s fiancé Chris (Chris Sandford) is taking her to an upmarket disco.

In this sequence, Mike is shown desperately seeking Susan and
everything is a little off-kilter. He enters the disco, and a handheld camera completely disorientates viewers as it continuously swirls and circles around him in the reception area as he attempts to gain admission.

Mother Sky is pretty disorientating too. Jerzy Skolimowski has spoken about avoiding ‘obvious soundtracks’ and in 1970, commissioning an underground act like Can was certainly far from obvious – especially when you consider that it had only been around a year since Easy Rider had revolutionized movie music by rejecting a traditional instrumental score in favour of a carefully assembled rock soundtrack consisting of existing or newly commissioned songs.

On seeing Susan and her flashy boyfriend enter, Mike flees. He buys a hotdog. Two doormen attempt to cajole him into a strip joint. He buys another hotdog. He steals a life-size cardboard cut-out of a female, who looks suspiciously like Susan. Hiding from the bouncers of the club he stole the cutout from, he enters the room of a hooker with one leg in a plaster cast. Due to her predicament, she offers a cut-price deal for sex, but he’s more interested in loitering outside the disco again. Two girls persuade him to buy them hotdogs. They’re not too interested in Mike apart from getting something free from him. A group of Christian evangelist squares attempt to spread the word of the Lord in deepest, darkest Soho of all places. Predictably, with zero success. He buys so many hotdogs, he’s offered one for free.

Finally, he spots Susan and her fiancé on the street, arguing. They go their separate ways. He follows Susan to the underground, still carrying his cut-out. Is he having some kind of breakdown? It looks like it. I’m beginning to think this isn’t going to end well.

Mostly filmed during the first half of 1970, Deep End premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Critics were mostly very positive. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas insisted that the film was masterpiece, that ‘shows Skolimowski to be a major film-maker, impassioned yet disciplined.’ Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune hailed it as ‘a stunning introduction to a talented film maker.’

Sadly, at the box-office it failed to generate much interest. Doubtless the fact that neither of the leads is sympathetic, didn’t help. Mike’s obviously excessively voyeuristic and prone to throwing childish tantrums too. Susan uses men (and is used by them) and also harbours a nasty streak, shown when she calls Mike’s mother a cow, presumably to hurt him, just because she can. The dialogue is not always convincing, likely as a result of Skolimowski’s poor English. Several of the actors had to rewrite their lines or improvise as the camera rolled and this didn’t always work, although arguably it adds to the dreamlike quality that is often evident.

Despite its flaws, Deep End is fascinating too. It displays a highly striking colour palette – at one point, in the background, a man begins painting the bath’s green tiled corridors a shade of the deepest Suspiria red (seven years before Argento’s horror classic was made). And if anybody ever tells you that everything the 1970s was either grey or beige, feel free to refer them to Jane Asher in her long yellow vinyl mac and blazing red hair.

Asher, incidentally, is very good as the cynical and amoral Susan.

The film also successfully showcases Skolimowski’s taste for absurdist humour. It is never predictable and although some critics judged it a film that deserves a better ending, I thought the climax in the pool was inspired and one of the most memorable in cult cinema.

Unavailable for decades due to legal problems, Deep End was released by the British Film Institute in a dual format edition on their Flipside series in 2011 and given a limited re-release in British cinemas. The film was also chosen to be screened at the Monorail’s Film Club at Glasgow Film Theatre in 2013.