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Dead Calm (1989)

June 17th, 2008 · 6 Comments

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Following a tragic automobile accident, Royal Australian Navy captain John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) isolate themselves aboard a yacht, the Saracen. Rae doubts she can get rid of the terrors in her head, but her husband assures her, “We’ve got weeks and weeks. Calm days, calm seas. And we’re gonna get strong, and when you’re strong, we’ll go home and start again.” With the exception of their dog Ben, the couple is completely alone. This changes when John spots a schooner on the horizon, the first boat they’ve seen in three weeks.

A man in a dinghy rows over. Behaving erratically, an American introduces himself as Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane) and states that his boat is taking on water. He claims five others were aboard, but died of food poisoning. Too traumatized to go back, Hughie is confined to one of the cabins while John rows to the battered schooner to investigate. Uncovering mutilated corpses, John races back to his wife, but not before Hughie escapes and takes control of the yacht, leaving John marooned.

John attempts to make the schooner ship shape in an attempt to head after his wife. Meanwhile, Rae tries to gain a psychological edge over her increasingly paranoid captor. Gaining use of the ship’s radar, she establishes the location of the schooner and communicates with her husband through Morse code. To give John time to catch up, she throws the yacht’s keys into the ocean, but her dog unwittingly hops into the water to fetch them. Learning that the schooner will sink in six hours, Rae resorts to more aggressive means to turn the yacht around and rescue him.


Production history
Dead Calm began as a 1963 novel by Charles Williams. The story followed John and Rae Ingram, a couple enjoying a South Seas honeymoon when they intercept a drowning ship. They retrieve a survivor, Hughie. John rows over and discovers the situation is shockingly different from what Hughie described, but the psychopath takes command of the couple’s yacht. A battle of wills ensues between Rae and Hughie, while her marooned husband struggles to catch them. Orson Welles optioned the film rights, casting Michael Bryant & Oja Kodar as the couple and Laurence Harvey as their tormentor.

Welles began shooting off the coast of Yugoslavia in 1968 under the title The Deep. Unable to secure financing to complete the film as he intended, the maverick director for all practical purposes abandoned it. He cut several trailers and short assemblages in a bid to raise more money, but the film never made it out of the vault of Welles’ estate. Over a decade later, Australian director Phillip Noyce was visiting America for the release of his well-received film Newsfront. He met with producer Tony Bill, who had taken an active interest in Dead Calm and threw Noyce a copy of the book as he was leaving.

Three months passed before Noyce got around to reading the book. Once he did, he flew back to Los Angeles and told Bill that he had to make the movie. The producer revealed that Welles had already tried and that his de facto widow – Oja Kodar – not only controlled the rights, but wasn’t inclined to sell them to the Hollywood establishment that had shunned Welles throughout his career. Several months later, Noyce repeated the story to George Miller, who was about to leave Australia to direct The Witches of Eastwick for the Hollywood establishment.


Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy had taken profits from the Mad Max trilogy and invested in the local film industry. They built their own studio in Kings Cross, grooming directors like John Duigan, Chris Noonan and Noyce on several “domestic movies” airing on Australian television. After obtaining permission from Tony Bill, Miller paid a visit to Oja Kodar and convinced her that his take on the material would be faithful to what Orson Welles intended, not a Hollywood studio. He left with the rights for Kennedy Miller to produce Dead Calm.

Terry Hayes adapted a screenplay, using the basic story and mood of the book, but making alterations. These included reducing the cast of characters to three – not counting the couple’s dog – and jettisoning a backstory that explained why Hughie went psychotic. The first actor cast was Sam Neill. For the role of Rae, Noyce approached Sigourney Weaver and Debra Winger among others, but each actress turned the part down. Hayes lobbied for a 20-year-old Australian performer named Nicole Kidman. Noyce screen tested forty actors for the part of Hughie and picked Billy Zane to round out the cast.

After months spent surveying waters around the world, fourteen weeks of shooting commenced on and off the coast of Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Passage of the Great Barrier Reef. Due to the barrier reef, waters remained mostly flat throughout the schedule. The production used one yacht to stand in for the Saracen and two boats to substitute for the Orpehus. For the interiors, the production built a seventy-by-forty foot tank, buoying the sets on empty oil drums to generate the effect of being a sea.


Warner Bros. picked up distribution rights to the film. Test audiences voted thumbs down on the original climax, in which Rae knocked Hughie on the head with a speargun and left him on an inflatable raft. Noyce shot a new ending, which left little ambiguity to the bad guy’s future. Opening April 1989 in the U.S., Dead Calm received generally favorable reviews; Siskel & Ebert gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up, with Gene Siskel noting, “I liked the minimal approach of this picture; which is three people, two boats and they made an interesting movie out of it.”

Director Phillip Noyce and actors Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and even Billy Zane spent the next decade heavily in demand due to the craftsmanship they displayed here, but no matter how many generic mainstream movies they’ve worked on since, Dead Calm remains a classic for how unremittingly gothic it is in both structure and mood. The filmmakers take the water wing floaties off in the very first scene and commit the movie to a hard R-rating – dark and unsettling all the way through – with plenty of exciting twists along the way.

While the ending does have that familiar Fatal Attraction psycho killer disposal vibe to it, the previous 90 minutes are taut and spooky. By limiting the cast to three characters – often isolated from each other – the claustrophobia of their environment is heightened. Noyce makes fantastic use of the nautical setting and the importance of bearings, radar, radio, ships logs and basic seamanship to survival. Further demonstrating that Australians ranked among the finest filmmakers in the world, Dean Semler provided the eerie lighting and Graeme Revell – on his first ever film score – composed the ominous music.


Joshua Smith at Oz Cinema writes, “Just as Hitchcock often employed elements of both surprise and suspense in his riveting thrillers, Noyce (and George Miller, who allegedly directed the second unit and the opening sequence) have successfully utilised both elements, and defied various conventions to create a thriller that will have you holding your breathe until the very last revelation.”

“The really good parts of the movie are the scenes that rely on action, rather than dialogue, between the characters. The camera work and scenery are exhilarating and had me wanting more … In paying more attention to the action elements of the story, some of the performances suffer. Billy Zane’s performance is too exaggerated to be believable,” writes Dan Kelly at The Digital Bits. He gives the flick a C+.

Lisa Skryniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Suspense films rarely gets better than this. The plot is not what you’d call complicated and yet I guarantee you will be glued to the edge of your seat. Dead Calm is a perfect example of an average story taken to a whole different level by the stellar performances of its’ stars.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Psycho killer · Train · Woman in jeopardy

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Jun 18, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I was just saying over at Marilyn’s site that I need to see more of Kidman’s earlier work – when I still enjoyed her acting. What happened to Neill and Zane by the way? Seems like they both flamed out in the 90’s.

  • 2 Craig Kennedy // Jun 18, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    I haven’t seen this one for a long long long time but I remember it as a terrific little movie that doesn’t seem like it gets the respect it deserves. It also put Kidman on the map for me.

    “The filmmakers take the water wing floaties off in the very first scene and commit the movie to a hard R-rating – dark and unsettling all the way through – with plenty of exciting twists along the way.” exactly.

  • 3 Bill Courtney // Jun 18, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    I have never seen this film and had not intended to but will give it a shot if I see it. I did like Kidman in to Die For and liked Gus Van Sant as well, though usually he is way too slow and spacy for me.

    Your reviews are, as I have said, well researched and loaded with info and trivia and that I why I come back here a couple times a week now. You even get in the issues with the screen play and everything. Great.

    I tried my hand at a new category about film noir films at my site if you want to check them out. I do not write with all the zest and detail you do, but I love noir films and it gives me a break from horror and cult and grade B and Z movies, since most noir films were exceptionally well down.


  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jun 18, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Daniel: I’m quite impressed with what Kidman accomplished earlier in her career, with this movie and To Die For, which not only put her in the same league with Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock, but at the top of that conference. Another flick people have forgotten is Malice, which has some really kinky stuff in it. Nathaniel at The Film Experience runs a Michelle Pfeiffer appreciation society; maybe I should consider a house of worship for Nicole, pre-The Hours, Kidman. Thanks for commenting!

    Craig: Thanks for sharing your appraisal. I think your statement paragraph sums up the movie even better than I could. It’s too bad that Phillip Noyce and Kidman couldn’t have made more B-movies along these lines, but everyone brushes up and gets respectable if they work long enough.

    Bill: Thanks for that compliment. I enjoy the vintage posters and artwork on your site, as well as the reminder of films I have neglecting seeing. Panic In the Streets is one.

  • 5 Sarah // Jun 26, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Another reason why Welles couldn’t finish the film was because Laurence Harvey died of a heart attack before he could finish getting financing.

  • 6 Crippen // Aug 25, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Watched this again last night, for the first time in years. Two things of interest sprung to mind.

    1) How very much like Roman Polanski’s earlier ‘Knife in Water’, this is.

    And 2) Billy Zane is doing a Jack Nicholson (in The Shining) impersonation.

    But still a very good film.

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