Blue Water, White Death / Peter Gimbel & James Lipscomb / 1971 /

Active Ingredients: Underwater photography; Ship’s crew story
Side Effects: Folk songs; Somewhat repetitious

Blue Water, White Death features incredible underwater shark photography, but it knows that a real story is needed to make the film work. The film documents a 5-month expedition taken by codirector Peter Gimbel and his crew off the coast of Southern Africa to capture the first images of the deadly great white shark on film. Four years before Jaws, this documentary builds an incredible mystique around the animals, and the footage the divers shot is just as tense and thrilling. Using a whale carcass as bait, the crew actually swim alongside the feeding frenzy of hundreds of great whites, outside the safety of their diving cages.

The underwater scenes are the main course, but codirector James Lipscomb is just as interested in the dynamics of the ship’s crew, the other dangers they face on their journey and the emotional ebbs and flows of the thrill-seeking scientists, driven to accomplish something (anything, perhaps) that’s never been done. Watching the film today, the ethics of their tactics are questionable, and the researchers appear more interested in dominating nature than in studying it. Still, their passion is palpable and the film uses it to build a compelling story with grace and artistry.