Essential: THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976)

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TB: This week we’re discussing a disaster film with an international cast, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. It was made near the end of the disaster cycle and was produced by Carlo Ponti, husband of Sophia Loren. Ponti was eager to put his wife in one of these kinds of pictures, since they tended to do well with audiences in the 1970s. Loren is wonderful in it, though she’s a bit past her prime. She costars with Richard Harris. And they are supported by an assorted cast of familiar faces, some of them a bit long in the tooth.

JL: I enjoyed this one for what it was. I can see why most high brows would not take it seriously but it is actually rather well-made, with tight editing and some spectacular action work. Although technically a seventies disaster film, it more properly belongs to the train drama genre that crested during the 1930s and ’40s and then experienced a revival after 1974’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

TB: Yes, I think that’s a good way to categorize it. In many ways it’s a remarkable film and somewhat ahead of its time. Especially in its treatment of themes about terrorism and health epidemics. So it’s not the typical disaster film. As you said, this one takes place mostly on a train traveling across Europe, and there are plenty of subplots and there’s plenty of action to sustain viewer interest. So let’s get right to the main story.

JL: We open in Geneva at the International Health Organization. I got confused as to the “why” the U.S. mission there got attacked by Swedish (?!) terrorists but we only need this event to accomplish our primary goal: to spread a deadly contained virus via one escaped terrorist who boards a train full of passengers.

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It is no-nonsense Burt Lancaster as Col. Stephen MacKenzie, who first appears as a nice guy ready to save the day a.k.a Mel Bakersfeld in AIRPORT, but slowly develops a more sinister unraveling of character. After all, he and the U.S. government are responsible for tampering with diseases in foreign places to begin with and are overly secretive in how they handle all of the damage resulting. This film makes an obvious dig at how a country simply can not avoid causing trouble for the rest of the world, simply because it can.

TB: I would say it’s an obvious dig, but it’s not a direct dig about U.S. policies overseas. Though I am sure moviegoers were able to understand this.

JL: I can imagine moviegoers jeering at Lancaster during this post-Watergate/ Vietnam/Pentagon Papers period, particularly when Lancaster out-and-out fibs to the train passengers that there is no reason to panic because there is “no danger.” Yes, but a lot of casualties are showcased in the final reel so we know that the lines of “nothing to worry about” are pointless.

TB: Exactly. He definitely lies to the people on the train, and mostly he is not shown to have remorse about that. Mainly, because he feels justified in sending those people to their deaths. He has to rid the world of those contaminants, or so he thinks.

JL: Speaking of Lancaster, it certainly helps to have a who’s who of big names in the cast, making it is easy to keep track of the characters even if so many of them are looking around for something to do. Of course, I still think of Richard Harris as Richard Harris instead of his screen name Jonathan Chamberlain, a has-been doctor who first discovers the terrorist on board and becomes the real hero of our adventure. Ditto the characters played by Sophia Loren (the producer’s wife and Harris’ on screen ex-wife), as well as Martin Sheen and Ava Gardner. Gardner goes through almost as many wardrobe changes in this one train voyage than she did in her entire MGM career.

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TB: Ava still looks good in this film. All the soft-focus photography certainly helps. I read somewhere that she only did it for the money, but she does give a very credible performance in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Besides Gardner and Loren, there are other notable presences on screen as the story unfolds. For instance, we have Swedish star Ingrid Thulin playing a second-in-command under Lancaster. And we also have John Philip Law, among others.

JL: Although his role is small, Lou Castel gives one of best performances as the terrorist in question, all sweaty but with a face full of emotional expression.

TB: What did you think about Lee Strasberg’s supporting role? He isn’t seen too much in the beginning, but as the story progresses, he begins to play a much more integral part in the outcome of things.

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JL: Lee Strasberg didn’t make enough movie roles so he is fun to watch here as Herman Kaplan, a Holocaust survivor who gets upset when he learns they will be using a familiar old haunt, a Nazi concentration camp in Janov, for emergency quarantine purposes. I also like the scenes of him with his card tricks, consoling the terrorist, cradling a crying baby and learning the truth from train conductor Lionel Stander in a dramatically evening-lit dining-car scene. I am rather disappointed that Stander (a favorite of mine from classic Warner-Vitaphone shorts, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, A STAR IS BORN and even doing the voice of Buzzy Buzzard opposite Woody Woodpecker) does very little on screen when the train conductor should technically have a bigger role in this.

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TB: I wonder if some of Stander’s scenes were cut and left on the editing room floor. Perhaps his character was not considered as important as the others. Okay, we also had O.J. Simpson in this movie. Care to comment on him?

Jl: Although not every passenger is Caucasian, O.J. Simpson is the one here-for-race-representation who has a role big enough. He was cast based on his success in the earlier THE TOWERING INFERNO; these being his happier years two decades before the murder trial. Unfortunately he is not particularly good in his role as the narcotics agent out to nab Sheen’s Robby Navarro. I also found it strange that the fellow musicians/friends accompanying Ann Turkel as she sang Dave Jordan’s “I’m Still On My Way” were exclusively white twenty-somethings. Apparently everybody traveling through Europe sports an American accent apart from Loren.

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TB: Turkel was married to Harris at the time, so it was interesting to see them have a brief scene together when her character became ill. But mostly they were involved in separate stories.

JL: There are a few interesting scenes early at the train station in Switzerland I really liked because they foreshadow events to come. A basset hound refuses to drink from a water fountain; he is one cautious pooch, but he isn’t so cautious later in the baggage car sharing water with the terrorist himself. Also Lee Strasberg’s Herman hits the jackpot with a vending machine and impresses those around him, suggesting that he will always be lucky in his (soon to end) life. Sophia Loren’s Jennifer doodles a mustache on her husband’s picture on a Match magazine cover, establishing the kind of relationship they have right away.

I love the almost back to back woman laying on the bed shots. Loren is very sexy with ex-husband Harris’ Chamberlain when working on her crossword puzzles and discussing her published trashy novel covering their doomed three marriages. (Later she is undressed under the covers when their bonding time is interrupted by news of more passengers getting sick, mirroring an earlier scene when the sick terrorist interrupts Ann Turkel trying to get a “rise” out of her boyfriend.) After that initial scene with Loren/Harris, we get Ava Gardner’s Nicole Dressler smoking like a chimney. She is accompanied by swinging seventies side-burned Martin Sheen’s Robby Navarro. He complains that he feels like a piece of luggage, like her basset hound.

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TB: I have to admit I liked Sheen’s scenes with Gardner very much. Yes, he does get treated like an accessory, but she needs him for companionship. In a way she doesn’t need the pooch, if you get my drift. And she seems to revel in their little affair. Of course, we come to find out he’s suffering from some sort of heroin addiction. And he’s wanted by the police. So this can’t end well for them. I do like how she occasionally references her very wealthy, but off-screen husband. Gardner’s a hoot in this role, and she etches a memorable character alongside Sheen.

JL: Sheen’s Robby is so eager for a change of career, since being the hidden escort-lover of a German arms manufacturer’s wife isn’t cutting it for him. Nonetheless he gets to play a doomed hero on the train later in one of the best action scenes even if it involves a stunt double who doesn’t look like him. One unintentionally humorous scene for lil’ ol’ me involves Robby getting shouted down by Harris’ overly animated Dr. Chamberlain in a key gun-toting scene.

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Harris is such a ham. I also noticed that some of his lines here and there sound like they were re-dubbed on the soundtrack. No clue why since his speech throughout is flawless. Maybe his ego wasn’t satisfied when viewing the rushes and he requested the lines of dialogue re-done?

TB: It’s a flawed film…but it’s an intelligent film, not the run-of-the-mill disaster flick so prevalent during this era. We get touches of biowarfare, cold war paranoia and references to the holocaust. All the characters are clearly defined, even Simpson’s role is defined, since he has a clearcut purpose being on the train, though that’s not revealed right away.

The one thing I wanted was a scene with Gardner after Sheen died. She never got the news that he didn’t make it. She is off screen for awhile and is glimpsed briefly at the end, so we know she ended up surviving. But I think she would have had a strong emotional moment (anguish/regret maybe) to learn her young lover had died trying to be a hero. We do know she will go back to her husband, since at one point she took great pride in her husband’s powerful career.

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JL: This would not be a seventies disaster movie if it didn’t have some action. Lovely Sophia is not afraid to do a bit of stunt work (well, actually, make believe pretend “stunt” work) involving a rescue helicopter that takes the infected doggie first. The bridge itself plays an important set-piece here as it hasn’t been stable since it was last used decades earlier. When a passionate Ingrid Thulin gets excited that the basset hound is recovering as she observes from video monitors at the Swiss headquarters (Thulin: “For your information, Colonel, the dog has completely recovered”. Lancaster’s response: “Fine, why don’t you go take him for a walk.”), The Plague is no longer the major danger threatening human lives. Now it is The Bridge… and the occupants of the train must subdue (and kill one or two) of the white-coated quarantine squad members who had invaded and are pushing the train to its destination regardless.

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TB: They never said why Lancaster was a villain. But I read it as a god complex he was suffering from…where he believed getting rid of the contamination warranted killing everyone. And even after he learned the disease was no longer proving fatal, he refused to change course. His agenda was like the train, on track towards destruction. What were your impressions about the special effects? Keep in mind we’re talking about a film made in 1976.

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JL: Special effects with some miniatures and backscreen projection work fairly well here, highlighted by a train-car blow-up scene involving Herman returning to where he lost his loved-ones decades earlier. Obviously this is still pre-STAR WARS and the special effects revolution that followed.

I should point out that we see quite a few lives lost here a.k.a. TITANIC with bodies in the water resembling that famous film two decades later. Of course, several key stars manage to make it through, but overall this is a much bleaker film even for this genre compared to the AIRPORT franchise and THE TOWERING INFERNO. I especially like how it wraps up with everybody including those who died in a “containment” of a disease…and everything that the colonel is doing himself…is under surveillance. This too is an interesting sign of the future, both for movie and TV plots and in real life as well.

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TB: I thought it was brilliant how Lancaster kept close associate Thulin in place when she threatened to go over his head. He had a chilling way of justifying his actions. This was a screenplay that used disaster to present a real think piece about international politics. Anything else you’d like to add?

JL: Jerry Goldsmith’s music is great here with some overtones of James Bond that speed up the suspense scenes. If his name sounds familiar even if you can’t place the face, it is because he did many classics like PLANET OF THE APES and CHINATOWN up through animated features like Disney’s MULAN and LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. His particular specialty were those big budget sci fi and horror epics that the major studios spent more than usual on, including THE OMEN, ALIEN, at least two STAR TREK features, POLTERGEIST, GREMLINS, TOTAL RECALL and THE MUMMY.

Also Ennio Guarnieri’s cinematography is gorgeous. But it is a trifle distracting in that we start in late autumn Switzerland and move to springtime Germany when you know the train trip didn’t take THAT long.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. I’ve enjoyed discussing this film with you. It might be of interest for our readers to know that THE CASSANDRA CROSSING may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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