Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) returns to his home town of Austin, Texas, for his mother’s wedding. He gets a job at his new father-in-law’s security firm. Michael meets his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Alison Elliott), but she is now married to Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner) a very dangerous local crook. Trying to get closer to Rachel, he agrees to get involved in a bank robbery.
Underneath is a remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1949 film noir Criss Cross, which starred Burt Lancaster in Peter Gallagher's role. (N.B. Most advertising and reference books give the title as The Underneath, but there is no definite article in the on-screen title.) Six years and three films after his prodigious fiction-feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh’s dissatisfaction with the Hollywood studio system had reached its peak. As Underneath was a box-office failure (barely released in the UK), it seemed that Soderbergh was a spent force. But, after the self-financed avant-garde film Schizopolis and the Spalding Gray performance documentary Gray’s Anatomy, he revived with Out of Sight.
Viewed on its own terms, Underneath is stylish and intriguing, though rather cold and distanced. It’s told in flashback and even flashbacks inside flashbacks. There are three main timelines: the day of the robbery, the events which follow Michael’s return home, and flashbacks to his earlier life and his previous relationship with Rachel. Certainly attention needs to be paid as the parts of the plot join together. Soderbergh helps us in a couple of ways. Firstly, he uses the device of colour-coding different narrative strands that he was later to develop in Traffic: the robbery is shot on grainy stock with a green tint and has time captions, while certain past scenes are dominated by blue. Also, in the earliest scenes chronologically, Michael has a beard while for the major part of the film he is clean-shaven. Along with The Limey and to a lesser extent Out of Sight, Underneath is the foremost example of Soderbergh’s penchant for non-chronological plot structures.
The cast is certainly capable: that excellent character actor William Fichtner comes off best as a genuinely scary villain. However, as for the most part we don’t know who is doing what to whom, the characters seem a little remote. Much emphasis is placed on Michael’s being a gambler, but at the end of the film we’re not sure whether he’s a hapless pawn of fate or whether he’s behind the whole elaborate scheme.
Underneath was shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses, and you can see Soderbergh and his DP Elliot Davis, making an effort to use the wide frame while still making it possible to pan-and-scan for TV showings. Universal’s DVD preserves the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Davis’s bold use of colour comes over well, but the transfer has problems that might well be down to its being non-anamorphic NTSC. There is an awful lot of aliasing, for example, which gets distracting. The sound is well-recorded; scenes of live bands in Tommy Dundee’s local bar give your speakers a workout. Universal have gone overboard with the chapter stops, no less than forty-one.
There is no commentary on this disc, which might have something to do with its director’s disaffection for his film. The extras are fairly basic: a trailer (in anamorphic 2.35:1, running 2:01), production notes and biographies of the principal cast and director. As it’s not really hidden, the link from Soderbergh’s biography to a trailer for Out of Sight, a forthcoming film when this DVD was released, doesn’t really count as an Easter Egg, but it’s a nice bonus. This is an early (1998) DVD release, which may explain the extra which demonstrates how much more picture you get in widescreen; nowadays this would be found in the booklet or inlay card. There are also colour bars, test tones and alignment signals, the better to optimise your player and sound system. Finally, there’s a DVD-ROM feature, but all that does is link you to the studio’s website, which you can visit here in any case.
Underneath isn’t a neglected masterpiece, but especially for fans of its director’s career it’s well worth seeing. This DVD is adequate but could have been better.