Thursday, December 3, 2009

Getting Railroaded

Regular visitors to The Underworld can’t help but be aware of my diehard affection for 1970s disaster films. In the wake of genre epics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno from Irwin Allen and 20th Century Fox, almost everyone else wanted to try his hand at it as well, since, for a time, disaster at the movies meant box office gold. The Cassandra Crossing was Britain's (and Italy's) answer to the genre and, though it is far-fetched and occasionally ridiculous, it is a thrilling and tense movie.

A thriller on several levels, this concerns a passenger train that has been infected with a deadly (and very nasty) plague. As officials debate the best way to handle this considerable problem, the train hurtles forward to the title locale, a rickety bridge that has been out of service for close to thirty years!

Sophia Loren top-lines (as is no surprise with producer-husband Carlo Ponti in charge) as a divorcee and author who happens to be boarded on the same train as her ex-husband (whom she was married to twice!) Richard Harris is the husband, a noted neurosurgeon. The two lob sarcastic barbs and occasionally poignant lines at each other and attempt a sort of updated Nick & Nora Charles thing. (Ironically, their character names are Jonathan and Jennifer, the monikers of the couple from the later The Thin Man-inspired TV show Hart to Hart and Lionel Stander, Max the conductor in this film, played The Harts’ cohort on the series---ALSO named Max!)

Other passengers board in the typical genre fashion, each with his or her own tics and traits and duties to the story. Ava Gardner, as a wealthy and sarcastic socialite, looks stunning. She ludicrously, but welcomely, appears in a new drop-dead Franka ensemble with complimentary jewelry for almost every scene. Nothing about her character is realistic, but she adds great style and class to the film. Yes, she’s older (this is post-Earthquake), but she’s made up and photographed well throughout most of the movie and her undeniable sparkle is captured occasionally.

Martin Sheen plays her latest boy-toy and they share a rather kinky, Oedipal relationship. Sheen’s full of edge and neuroses, countered by the jaded and blasé attitude of Gardner.

O.J. Simpson plays a mysterious priest. This was filmed, of course, back when he was an amiable, highly admired ex-football star turned actor (of a sort.) It’s sometimes difficult to watch him in his old films now in the wake of what’s come since then. He’s likeable here, but certainly not very good acting-wise.

Famed acting coach and director Lee Strasberg is absolutely excruciating as a sort of male Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls, omnipresently appearing everywhere when one least expects (or wants) it, trying to sell watches to the passengers and applying other schtick. He gets somewhat better toward the end when his character exposes some poignant characteristics, but his appearance here is mostly embarrassing.

Ann Turkel (doubtlessly on board due to her off screen relationship with Harris) is a hippie singer, one of several in a small gaggle, who warbles a truly awful song, which stops everything in its tracks (pun intended.)

Also on board is the infected terrorist who is spreading the horrific plague everywhere he goes (which is hilariously punctuated by ominous sounds and scenes of him coughing into the train's food, etc...) Then there’s Alida Valli, who, in better days, was a glamorous Italian film star and even a Hitchcock leading lady in The Paradine Case, but now is playing a somewhat dim grandmother in thick glasses.

Meanwhile, off the train and at a command center, Burt Lancaster, as a stern army colonel, and Ingrid Thulin (who exists solely as a verbal punching bag for Lancaster), as a dedicated doctor, argue over the best course of action. She fights for the rights and lives of the passengers. He sees them as already expired casualties of an unfortunate situation. Eventually, it is decided to direct the train to an old concentration camp in Poland, but first it must traverse the The Cassandra Crossing!

The film contains some very impressive aerial camera work (it really should be viewed in widescreen) and doesn't take long at all to begin it's feeling of dread and suspense. Though a lot of the drama is diffused by clumsy editing, inane dialogue, agonizing bit players, lax rear projection (but not too often) and lazy acting, there is enough good in the film to overcome this.
Immeasurably helpful is Jerry Goldsmith's Italian-flavored, chug-chug score, which wrings every ounce of excitement it can out of the visuals. It's also fun to see Loren in a film of this type, pitching in and holding her own with Harris in the action scenes. There is a level of emotion in several instances that helps this rise above some other disaster flops like When Time Ran Out and Avalanche. Quite a lot happens in this film. The plague would be enough, but then there's some gunplay and the weakened bridge! The situation in the film is serious and threatening and isn't relieved until almost the fade-out, so a few missteps along the way can be forgiven.

The Dustin Hoffman-Rene Russo film Outbreak shares more than a few similarities with The Cassandra Crossing, so fans of that one may like this, too. Still, there’s something about the bleak, aged, Euro-look of Crossing that adds to the cynicism of the situation and makes for a less slick, showy product than Outbreak was.

Containing an international cast, The Cassandra Crossing was able to be marketed all over the world with varied selling points. Check out this foreign poster in which Loren’s startled expression takes center stage and the garish colors promise an explosive scenario whereas the US version at the top of this post emphasizes the stars at the top and a darker (and probably more accurate) tone. As an aside, the way Soph maneuvers her way through the aisles of the passenger cars is the way I have forever since behaved when traveling through a train, a plane or even a bus!


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