Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)

Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take Leslie too seriously if, like me, you’ve watched AIRPLANE! way too many times!)

Next, introduce your all-star cast: We’ve got Hackman as a rebellious priest having his dark night of the soul, Ernest Borgnine as a belligerent NYC cop and Stella Stevens as his ex-prostitute wife, Red Buttons as a lonely, health-food nut bachelor, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters as an elderly Jewish couple sailing for Israel, Carol Lynley as a young, aspiring singer, and Roddy McDowell as a steward. Add youngsters Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea on their way to meet their parents in Greece for good measure.

Then, add your disaster: a sub sea earthquake that triggers a freak tsunami, hitting the Poseidon with devastating force on New Year’s Eve, right after the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”! The ship capsizes, and now in order to survive our stars must make their way to the bottom (which is now the top) of the ship and reach the engine room to be rescued or, like all the rest of the supporting players and extras, they’re doomed to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean!!

Oh, and let’s add some conflict for dramatic effect: Hackman and Borgnine are constantly at odds, bellowing at each other like bull elephants. Winters is old and overweight; the others think she’ll drag them down. Lynley’s suffering from trauma because her brother was killed, MacDowell’s got a wounded leg, Shea’s an obnoxious little know-it-all. There’s enough suspense, thrills, and terror put before our ten heroes for three disaster flicks, and it all works thanks to the steady hand of  director Ronald Neame (who later helmed one of the worst in the disaster cycle, 1979’s METEOR ).

Let’s talk a moment about Shelley Winters’ performance as Mrs. Rosen. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, double Oscar winner Shelley (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, A PATCH OF BLUE) began giving way-over-the-top performances in whatever she did, and was becoming more and more a parody of herself. Granted, she had recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and was taking roles beneath her considerable talents. Yet here Shelley toned down her act, giving a subtly emotional portrayal, and her bravery and self-sacrifice in saving Hackman’s life, especially after enduring all the cracks about her weight through the film, deservedly earned Winters an Oscar nomination (though she lost to Eileen Heckart for BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE). THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE may be just a big-budget popcorn movie, but it does have a heart and soul; its name is Shelley Winters.

Let’s also have a tidal wave of applause for the stunt crew, set designers, and special effects wizards who made THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE a visual delight… no CGI necessary! Veteran SPFX men L.B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were given a Special Achievement Oscar for their fantastic technical work, and the film also won for what I consider one of the most annoying songs of the 70’s, the perennial soft-rock snoozer “The Morning After” (well, as Joe E. Brown said in SOME LIKE IT HOT, nobody’s perfect!). Despite that lame title tune, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is just as enjoyable today as it was upon first release,  an exciting, fun piece of Hollywood filmmaking that’s endured the storm-ravaged test of time!

Creepy Crawlies: WILLARD (Cinerama 1971)

Rats are not cute’n’cuddly little creatures. They’re disgusting, disease-infested vermin that should be avoided at all costs. But don’t tell that to WILLARD, title character in this 1971 chiller that started a regular revolution of “animals run amok” horror movies. Bruce Davison, later to become one of his generation’s finest actors (SHORT EYES, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, LONGTIME COMPANION), is a regular rodent Dr. Doolittle here, not only talking to the animals, but handling them fondly while he trains them to kill his enemies. Rats – yuck!

Willard Stiles is a lonely loser who shares a rambling, decrepit manse with his  domineering mother (Elsa Lanchester) and works for bullying boss Martin (Ernest Borgnine ), who stole the family business from Willard’s late father. Office temp Joan (Sondra Locke) feels sorry for Willard, but the socially awkward nerd is uncomfortable around people, preferring instead to spend time with the rats in his yard, befriending and training them, then letting the varmints move into his cellar. His best furry friends are white rat Socrates and black rat Ben.

When Willard’s mom finally kicks the bucket, a tax lien is put on the house. None of the mother’s elderly friends want to help financially, and mean Mr. Martin wants to buy the property and erect apartment houses. Socrates is killed by Martin when the little bugger is discovered hanging out in the company storeroom (Willard takes he and Ben to work with him!), and Martin decides the only way to get that property is to fire Willard. This pushes young Willard over the edge, and he extracts revenge on Martin in gruesome fashion. Then Willard, realizing he can’t keep his home, drowns his remaining furry partners in crime. But he forgot about Ben, who carries out his own brand of vengeance…

Davison reminds me a bit of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO; he’s definitely got some of that Norman Bates vibe, and his slow descent into madness is a bloody good time. Borgnine is a real prick as Martin, and his death scene is as creepy as it was when I originally saw this flick in the theater long ago. I’ve sung the praises of Sondra Locke on this blog before; her part is small, but her presence is always welcome, as is that of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself, Elsa Lanchester, as Willard’s mom.

Daniel Mann directed some powerhouse dramas in the 50’s and early 60’s: THE ROSE TATTOO, I’LL CRY TOMORROW, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But after 1960’s BUTTERFIELD-8, his career declined, though on WILLARD he does a fine if unspectacular job. No matter; the material could’ve been directed by anybody (or a nobody) and would’ve worked, and it actually holds up rather well. Alex North delivers an eerie score, and the rats were well-trained by Moe DiSesso, a Hollywood animal trainer who worked with the bird in THE RAVEN , the dogs in THE HILLS HAVE EYES , and lovable Sandy in the musical ANNIE. Dogs and birds I don’t mind, but far as I’m concerned DiSesso can keep his nasty, gnawing little rodents. Rats – yuck!

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967)

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Happy Veteran’s Day and thank you to all who’ve served!

One of my favorite WW2 movies to watch is THE DIRTY DOZEN. This rousing all-star epic, flavored with superb character actors and moments of humor, was a box office success and remains a perennial favorite among action lovers. The formula (a band of military misfits unite to battle the enemy) became so popular it’s been rehashed several times in several ways, but none have ever come close to having the panache of director Robert Aldrich’s lively original.

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Army Major Reisman is given the assignment of whipping twelve convicts into fighting shape and taking on what amounts to a suicide mission: conduct a raid behind enemy lines on a chateau where high ranking Nazi officers assemble for R’n’R. Reisman’s a rebellious sort (“very short on discipline”) with contempt for his higher-ups, especially rival Col. Breed. One of the officers calls him “the most ill-mannered, ill-disciplined officer I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, but General Worden believes Reisman’s the man for the job. The Major’s introduced to his new charges at prison. There’s cocky Chicago hood Franko, gentle giant Posey, ex-officer Wladislaw, religious nut Maggot, dimwitted Pinkley, and eight other murderers, rapists, and thieves. Reisman and his right-hand man Sgt. Bowren are to take this “dirty dozen” and turn them into a team.

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The deal is the men will get their sentences commuted if successful, but if one of them tries to escape, they all go back to face the hangman. Franko tries some initial pushback, but is brought into line by his peers. The cons learn to depend on each other, though Army psychiatrist Kinder considers them “the most twisted bunch of psychopaths” he’s ever seen. Breed almost gets the mission quashed after being embarrassed by the troop, but they’re given a chance when the dozen capture Breed’s squad during maneuvers. Feeling they’re ready to roll, Reisman leads his men on the mission in an exciting, grisly 45 minute climax. Only three make it back, and Wladislaw is given the last word: “Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”.

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WW2 vet Lee Marvin leads the testosterone fueled cast as Reisman, a good soldier who dislikes authority. John Cassavetes was Oscar nominated for his role as Franko, the defiant mobster who becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (Wladislaw) was an old hand at these all-star action films (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and 70s solo superstardom was just down the road for him. Donald Sutherland  (Pinkley) adds another goofy characterization to his resume, and 70s stardom awaited him, too. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, is slimeball Maggot, while TV’S CHEYENNE Clint Walker plays big Posey. Ex-NFL star Jim Brown makes his film debut, and his “broken play” run while setting off the hand grenades is one of the action genre’s most iconic scenes. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Robert Webber are on hand as members of the “big Army brass” (to borrow a line from WW2 vet Ed Wood). Richard Jaeckel is the loyal Sgt. Bowren, and singer Trini Lopez appears as Jiminez (and even gets to sing “The Bramble Bush”). Besides Marvin, actors Borgnine, Ryan, Webber, Kennedy, Savalas, and Walker all served their country during World War Two.

Finally, in answer to that age-old barstool trivia question, “Name the members of THE DIRTY DOZEN”, here’s the lineup:

  • Franko: John Cassavetes
  • Vladek: Tom Busby
  • Jefferson: Jim Brown
  • Pinkley: Donald Sutherland
  • Gilpin: Ben Carruthers
  • Posey: Clint Walker
  • Wladislaw: Charles Bronson
  • Sawyer: Colin Maitland
  • Lever: Stuart Cooper
  • Bravos: Al Mancini
  • Jiminez: Trini Lopez
  • Maggot: Telly Savalas

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