' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Fathom (1967)

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fathom (1967)

Leslie Martinson’s “Fathom” appeared in the midst of the swinging sixties’ spy craze, ranging from Agent 007 to Modesty Blaise, and so it would make sense that Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that helped shepherd Raquel Welch to stardom, would, in the wake of “Fantastic Voyage” and “One Million Years B.C.”, seek to capitalize on said spy craze by formulating an espionage adventure for Ms. Welch. Except that Welch’s Fathom (“It’s short for Elizabeth”) Harvill is not really a spy at all; she is a skydiver. We see this in “Fathom’s” opening sequence where the titular character goes through the painstaking process of readying her parachute pack for a jump. Except, of course, that the titular character is wearing a bikini while she goes through this process, which is how the movie actually opens, with Fathom splayed on the ground as the camera pans from bottom to top, unashamedly ogling the actress playing the part. Welch is on the screen to be seen, after all, and Martinson and the producers want to ensure we see as much of her as we can. Later, when a Scottish agent, who has enlisted the aid of Welch’s character for reasons to semi-discussed momentarily, gives her a different bikini to put on, Welch gives him the stink eye but acquiesces nonetheless, emblematic of her general countenance.

Is there a plot in “Fathom”? Yes, there is, technically, I guess, and what of it? It’s one of those plots that is somehow both overstuffed and entirely superfluous, kicked off when Fathom is recruited by a pair of Scottish agents (Ronald Fraser and Richard Briers) to help them nab a nuclear triggering mechanism hidden inside an ancient artifact of the Ming dynasty, which is also being sought by a mysterious Armenian (Sergi Serapkin), in the possession of rogue Peter Merriweather (Anthony Franciosa) and his associate Jo-May Soon (Greta Chi), none of whom are exactly who they say they are in order to keep stringing the story along. The Scottish agents require Fathom’s skydiving skills to infiltrate the seaside villa of Peter and Jo-May, though Fathom, with absolutely no training, goes along with this seemingly slapped together plan so unreluctantly, and rolls with each successive development so willingly, that I kept thinking the movie should have escalated the absurdity even more and done away with its pitiful stabs at seriousness.

One scene finds Fathom, in fact, inadvertently killing a woman, causing her to scream, which Welch does not sell in any way, shape or form, only to trade bon mots over long breakfast not long after, and not long after that learning the woman she thought she killed isn’t really dead at all. This is on account of some tricky ruse, but it felt more like the writers suddenly realizing that they couldn’t actually have Fathom kill someone and needed to write their way out of it. The whole film plays like that, made up on the fly, motivation on a minute-by-minute basis.

The real motivation here often seems to be the scenery, off the coast of southern Spain, where innumerable aerial shots give us myriad chances to gape. And Martinson lets us gape, holding shots to really let us see what we are looking at. At the same time, his action scenes, ranging from the air to the water and back again are often played less for suspense than pleasure. When Fathom is forced to evade a vile hitman wielding a harpoon, she jumps out of the boat she probably never should have climbed into in the first place and swims away. How she keeps evading harpoons the editing never quite makes clear, but that’s because clearly the purpose of this scene is just to watch Welch enter and exit the water, like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot.

If that sounds of its time, well, it certainly is, though even in the midst of so much male gazing, where at one point the three principal male rivals of Fathom are all lined up directly across from her in a train car, noting her every move, she still manages to throw a few counterpunches. Indeed, she gets away with the Ming dynasty artifact and ensure it is left in the right hands, a scene that is both howlingly, wonderfully over the top and the film’s two principal ladies getting one over on all the dudes. Likewise the moment leading up to it finds Fathom sluffing off advice from a dude, which is something of a Twist, among the most casual Twists I have ever seen, a casualness that fits the material just right. If skydiving would seem the logical point given the film’s set-up, it mostly falls by the wayside as the movie progresses, though Fathom still sort of exhibits the hallmark of a skydiver in the way that amidst so much narrative hot air she still manages, at the end, to hit her mark.

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