The Underrated “Underneath”
I watched “Underneath” again last evening. What a great, truly underrated film.
Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is the black sheep of his family. He returns home to Austin, Texas, for his mother’s wedding to her boyfriend, Ed Dutton (Paul Dooley). Ed is a driver for an armored car service and thinks that his boss, Clay (Joe Don Baker) might just have a job for him. Michael immediately runs into his old girlfriend, Rachel (Allison Elliot). Rachel has hooked up with a bar owner, Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). The old attraction between Michael and Rachel builds to an inferno, but she marries Tommy, complicating things. Nonetheless, they continue to meet and are quickly found out by Tommy. Michael hatches a plan.
“Underneath” was directed by Steven Soderbergh and was virtually ignored by American filmmakers. In fact, most of Soderbergh’s films after his debut, “sex, lies and videotape”, until the more recent “Erin Brockovich:, have been financial failures. Why is this? During this time, Soderbergh created three truly wonderful films. He followed “sex, lies” with “Kafka”, a mixed bag. Then he directed “King Of The Hill”, an amazing film about a young boy during the Depression. This is a truly great film that you have not seen. You should. It is impossible to write about the film and do it any justice. He followed “King” with “Underneath”, a homage to film noir. More on that in a moment. Two more films and then he directed “Out of Sight” starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. This film contains one of the sexiest performances from a couple to grace a film in a long time. I think the main reason this film did not enjoy more success can be contributed to the “cubist filmmaking” Soderbergh employs in the film. He mixes segments from different timelines, starting scenes before others are completed. This actually creates a great, very enjoyable caper film based on an Elmore Leonard novel. “The Limey” followed “Out of Sight”. “The Limey” stars Terence Stamp in an electrifying performance. A tribute to the hard boiled crime films of the 60s and early 70s, the film didn’t find a large audience, again, I think because audiences were not ready for the cubist filmmaking. Soderbergh toned things down a bit for “Erin Brockovich”, creating his most successful film to date. He provided Julia Roberts with the role that may well earn her an Academy Award in March. It is a great film told in a more linear, straight forward style. I have very high hopes for his next film, “Traffic”, starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta- Jones, and the upcoming “Oceans 11”, a remake starring a plethora of Hollywood stars.
“Underneath” tells a very familiar story, particularly if you are familiar with Film Noir. Film Noir is a style of film that enjoyed popularity in the 40s and early 50s, distinguished by black and white film, use of dark shadows and a story that usually featured a former convict trying to go straight with some difficulty. “Underneath” is a film shot in color, but where most Noir films used black and white to great advantage, Soderbergh creates his own form of Noir with color. The entire film is marked with primary color hues that serves the same purpose as dark shadows, shadows of venetian blinds, etc. Many scenes are washed in a green hue, which is actually very natural. These scenes seem to indicate a form of conflict or danger. Other scenes are washed in blue, creating a form of warning. It is a truly remarkable pallet that helps the filmmaker create a world all his own.
The DVD that I saw has virtually no extras, not even a commentary by Soderbergh. What it does have is an absolutely essential demonstration of the differences between ‘pan and scan’ and ‘letterbox’. Most films you watch on video are in the pan and scan format, to fill your entire television screen. However, to fit a rectangular silver screen image to a square television, they have to cut out a significant portion of the image. They show a stunning sequence from the film in both formats. The letterboxed image retains the visual impact of the scene, while the pan and scan merely looks like every other film you have ever scene.
Another element of a lot of Film Noir is the use of various visual techniques to demonstrate various elements of the story. In “Shadow of A Doubt”, there is a confrontation between Charlie and her Uncle on a porch. Hitchcock uses shadows from the porch light to indicate the good and bad state of each character. In “Underneath”, Soderbergh creates a very similar visual dynamic. There is an early scene, upon Michael’s return home. He is eating a meal with his mom, Ed and his brother, David. David is a cop that knows what his brother is like and doesn’t trust him. He is also jealous that their mom clearly seems to adore Michael, even though David is the better, more reliable son. Ed is too new to the family to have an opinion. As the conversation progresses, each shot shows Michael and the person he is talking to. Each person is shown from the front, but Michael’s framing depends on his relationship with them. His face is turned away from his brother’s, towards his mother’s and side to side with Ed’s. It is a very effective visual tool that Soderbergh uses again.
The first two acts of “Underneath” actually tell three stories in a shifting timeline. Michael returns home, Michael’s job at the armored car company and the events leading up to Michael leaving town are all depicted at various points, to illustrate the story leading to the third act.
Again, “Underneath” is a very underrated film, worthy of your rental dollars. I would also suggest that you try out “King of the Hill” and “The Limey”.