23 April 2009

Movie Review: The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Directed by George P. Cosmatos. Starring Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, O. J. Simpson, Lee Strasberg, Martin Sheen, Lionel Stander, Ann Turkel, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Thulin.

My adoration of composer Jerry Goldsmith has occasionally brought me to some odd corners of cinema that no one else visits. I’ve collected many obscure Goldsmith scores, which often makes me want to watch the films that accompany that awesome music. And thus, The Cassandra Crossing, an Italian-produced all-star disaster film about which I’ve heard almost nothing since I first bought the imported CD of Goldsmith’s score in the early 1990s. For years, the only solid data I had on it came from the hilariously poor translation into English of the liner notes for the CD. (Exact quote: “Some film stars play the role of main and second characters. Tower above them an unpleasant BURT LANCASTER…”) The growth of the Internet gave me more access to the information about the film, but it remained an obscure piece of ‘70s cinema and not something I actively pursued until I found out I could simply press a button on Netflix and watch it instantly on my computer monitor.

The Cassandra Crossing combines the celebrity disaster movie with the international thriller. One half is the soap opera of the star actors brought together on a vehicle in the midst of a crisis—the same Grand Hotel device that defined the ‘70s disaster flick since Airport. The other half is military and government officials panicking calmly in “war rooms” as they try to avoid a fiasco.

The movie opens with a long helicopter shot over Geneva on a particularly smoggy day. I hope the weather conditions were not the original choice for the filmmakers, because it’s an ugly shot. The smog-pan concludes on an International Health building and pulls us into a suspense sequence where Swedish terrorists break into the building and get into a shoot-out with security. We never find out who the terrorists are or what they were actually after, but it certainly wasn’t getting gunned down in the Department of Really Bad Viral Diseases That the U.S. Government Is Trying to Cover-Up. One infected terrorist in a nice sweater gets away, clambers aboard an international train heading for Stockholm, and we have our premise.

Colonel Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) settles into the sterile war room where he’ll spend the entire film managing the disaster and explaining to a Swiss doctor (Ingrid Thulin) what is happening. The U.S. was experimenting—illegally—with a strain of pneumonic plague, a fast-acting and aerosol-spread version of the disease that wiped out a third of Europe. For fear of the disease proliferating rapidly, Mackenzie won’t allow the train to stop or anyone to get off it. He instead routes the train into Poland, toward the town of Janov and a closed bridge of questionable stability: the crossing of the title.
The movie never makes clear the reason for sending the train all the way to Poland, or what Mackenzie’s true motives are. It also seems that the U.S. gets a lot of easy cooperation from both Western and Eastern European countries to drive a plague-ridden train across their borders. We just have to accept some shadowy conspiracy and cold government manipulation for the plot to work. Lancaster’s presence helps make it feel appropriately sinister, even though the actor has put himself in low gear and merely sits there. At least Lancaster has effective voice presence.

So what famous folks grabbing paychecks have boarded the Plague Express? The top-billed hero is Richard Harris as Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain, a famous physician who who might have enough wits about him to get control of the spread of both plague and panic through the train. Since he’s Richard Harris, he can also shout effectively over the radio at Burt Lancaster. I love Harris as an actor, and I can’t complain about what he does here. Dr. Chamberlain has his own drama with his two-times ex-wife Sophia Loren, who also boards the train so she can harangue Chamberlain about the new book she’s writing about him… and so they can try to fall in love again.

O. J. Simpson, in a part meant for James Coburn, plays the “random sinister fellow” who always gets into these stories. That he’s disguised as a priest and played by O. J. Simpson makes it bizarrely appropriate. Here is a case when dark irony from the real world improves a poor performance. He’s entwined with the film’s least interesting subplot, Martin Sheen as a long-haired mountain-climbing gigolo to Ava Gardner’s rich socialite. This subplot eventually comes to a dead-end, but it does provide extra people who can handle guns for the shoot-out when the passengers decide to seize the train from their bio-suited captors.

The character with the most interesting possibilities is Herman Kaplan, played by famous acting school founder Lee Strasberg. Kaplan is a holocaust survivor for whom imprisonment on a train heading into Poland has horrific connotations. The film’s best sequence, a frightening late-night stop in Nuremberg where a medical team dressed in impersonal white suits and masks seals up the passenger cars, seems calculated specifically to push Kaplan into madness because of its similarity to the Holocaust. However, Kaplan comes across both from the script and Strasberg’s performance as a stereotype of the European Jew played for comedy until he is needed for tragedy. Aside from the generic nature of the part, the switch from one role to the other isn’t smooth. I imagine that Strasberg didn’t show this performance to his students.
Ann Turkel, who plays a folk singer whose main purpose is to look sexy even when sweating with plague-fever, was married to Richard Harris at the time. She also sings a song “I’m Still on My Way” (not credited to Jerry Goldsmith) early in the film for no good reason. She later divorced Harris—he’s not a man I can see anyone staying with for long.

Now to turn to the man who brought me to this film in the first place. Jerry Goldsmith frequently collaborated with director George P. Cosmatos (Cosmatos, who died in 2005, was godfather to Goldsmith’s son), writing the superb music for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Leviathan. Goldsmith was also slated to score Cosmatos’s Tombstone, the director’s penultimate film, but Bruce Broughton ended up taking the job instead. (This may have something to do with the controversy surrounding who really directed Tombstone, but I won’t get into that here.) Goldsmith’s score for The Cassandra Crossing is an example of the great work he could bring to lesser material. The feel of the music is similar to Goldsmith’s “military sound” which he also used in Rambo: First Blood, Part II. The score centers on two motifs. The first is a melancholy piece referred to as “It’s All a Game” on the CD. Hal Shaper is credited with the lyrics, but no lyrics appear in the film or on the album, so perhaps a vocal version got scrapped during production. A pop-arrangement of “It’s All a Game” appears on the album but not the film; it’s not that bad either, as far as “pop singles” drawn from movies go. The other motif is a harsh electronic and percussion sting that indicates the presence and spread of the plague and the looming disaster of the bridge. This startling motif adds a dark touch to the film that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Goldsmith’s finest moment is the cue called “Helicopter Rescue,” where a medical chopper tries to lift off the infected terrorist and a basset hound (seriously) from the speeding train before they slam into the side of mountain when the train goes into a tunnel. As a suspense scene goes it isn’t anything astonishing, but Goldsmith makes the damn thing sing with the rhythmic pulsing of brass and gradually escalating tension.

The finale of the film at the bridge has some surprises, some good and some bad. I’ll say for right now that I have seen better model work and editing.

As ‘70s disaster films go, The Cassandra Crossing is a good one—far superior to The Swarm and When Time Ran Out.... Half the characters are annoying with conflicts pulled from a standard playbook for the genre. The conspiracy and the logic behind all of it remains too murky, and the attention paid to the basset hound is often unintentionally hilarious. But in a ‘70s genre way, the movie ends up as a solid piece of entertainment. Someone trying this story today would end up producing a boring “virus paranoia” tale to ride bio-terrorism fears. Looking at it through the prism of the 1970s, it turns out as groovy, occasionally thrilling, fun.

Plus, you get to hear Richard Harris speak one of his greatest lines of all time: “What sweaty pervert?”

One further gem from those weird Babblefish CD liner notes: “The film is also generously debtor towards an acrobatic second unit—both shooting units are co-ordinated by the Greek GEORGE PAN COSMATOS, that a few years later will have success with ‘RAMBO II’—and toward an equipe of wild stuntment.” All your crossings belong to us, I guess.