Film: Very Good
Transfer: Very Good
Released: January 7, 2014
Genre: Disaster / Virus Thriller
Synopsis: A passenger train is redirected to a derelict line after a viral outbreak mandates a severe lockdown while in motion.
Special Features: Theatrical Trailer / Also includes “The Domino Principle” (1977) with Theatrical Trailer and Behind-the-Scenes Feature (7:03).
Deliberately peppered with a star-studded international cast for global appeal, The Cassandra Crossing is a ludicrously implausible disaster film / virus thriller that nevertheless manages to entertain and transcended some standout boneheaded scripting and continuity gaffes.
Lou Castel leads a trio of Swedish terrorists who easily penetrate the ‘International Health Organization’ with a bomb, but during a scuffle with security guards expose themselves to a virulent airborne agent.
The lone terrorist manages to sneak onto a train headed for Basel, and apparently no one seems unnerved by his glistening sweaty skin, pale pallor, and likely odor; he touches little Caterina (Fausta Avelli, one of several creepy redheaded girls cast in gialli, such as Phenomena and Virgin Killer) and coughs into a pot of rice with impunity, although when the train’s hippy folk singers find him nestled in their room, alarm bells finally start to clang in their heads.
By pure luck, the train also carries Nobel Prize winner Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris) who’s drafted into service when Caterina, a folk singer, a nun, and a dog become affected. Chamberlain ultimately becomes the leader for the passengers when Col. Stephen Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) is summoned to Geneva and fix the problem, which secretly involves shuttering up the train and sending the passengers to their doom on a derelict line and a decommissioned bridge that’s sure to fail and collapse into a valley.
Folded into this nonsense is Chamberlain’s ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren), the newly minted best-selling author of a tawdry novel based on their troubled marriage; Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner), wife of an arms dealer travelling with her mountain climbing boy-toy / mimbo Robby Navarro (Martin Sheen, sporting the thickest, longest mane of his career); detective Haley (O.J. Simpson), posing as a priest; and watch peddler Herman Kaplan (legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg in a rare film role), who helps translate the words of the dying Swedish terrorist.
Drama at the IHO’s Geneva headquarters comes from Dr. Elena Stradner (pale & pasty Ingrid Thulin) whose pleas to Mackenzie and his assistant Major Stack (underused John Phillip Law) are ignored, and suspicions of white lies increase as the airlifted dog recovers and a possible solution to the virus is utterly ignored.
Bathos worms its way into the story via Kaplan, a concentration camp survivor who tries to escape when the cars are shuttered by the military and sent to the Cassandra Crossing in Poland. Kaplan’s friend Max (Lionel Stander), the train’s conductor, tries to temper his fears, and calms his own nerves by remaining stoic and offering simple folksy words of inspiration. Strasberg almost sells Kaplan as a sympathetic character – he comes close to transcending Kaplan’s simplistic and exploitive qualities – but there are other weaker characters which augment the bathos.
O.J. Simpson’s Haley comes off as a creepy priest whenever he addresses little Caterina as “Sweets,” and the girl’s Nanny is played by iconic beauty Alida Valli (The Third Man, The Paradine Case), completely hidden under a set of giant Coke bottle glasses.
Equally ridiculous is a troupe of folk singers, with Susan (Ann Turkel) launching a tune much in the way The Poseidon Adventure’s Nonny (Carol Lynley) and her band sing their own tune – the hit single “The Morning After.” Unfortunately for producer (and Loren’s husband) Carlo Ponti, instead of overdubbing Ann Turkel’s voice with a professional singer, the actress does all the singing, often missing the right note by a mile, and the music montage attains a special fromage factor when conductor Max stands in the cabin doorway, half smiling because actor Stander probably had to listen to the playback of “I’m Still On My Way” more than he’d preferred.
George Cosmatos (co-credited with story & screenplay) was more astute as an action director, hence the limited quality of the performances, and three glaring lapses in continuity / illogic: Dr. Chamberlain sees the Swedish terrorist hacking onto food in the galley… but just walks away; boy toy Robby is reluctant to show Chamberlain his arms because of needle marks from heroin injections sugar momma Dressler may see… and yet in a prior scene he’s doing a half-naked, upside-down yoga pose with Dressler; and ‘priest’ Haley examines his revolver in the train car’s walkway, in clear view of the biohazard guards who’d logically be watching him and take the pistol away pronto.
More stark is the film’s loony conceit in which a health organization would allow itself to be controlled by some monotone colonel, needle-dropped into a dilemma, and sanction the murder of a full train’s passengers & crew. Cosmatos shows Mackenzie talking on the phone with an unseen superior to infer corrupt government agencies, but it’s a pale comic book addition that takes away from the core drama of passengers forced to fend for themselves as their train is headed for a doomed overpass.
To Cosmatos’ credit, the action scenes are kinetic – the terrorist raid and the airlift of the dog from the train are well-crafted – and as a visual stylist, his manic use of close-ups and tightly framed eyes maximize paranoia. The Wescam footage that bookends the film’s Main & End Credits is gorgeous, and the rickety bridge (in actuality, the striking Garabit viaduct, designed by Gustave Eiffel)) is revealed in stages – first as a silhouette emerging from a fog, then a reflection in a river, and much later in full, rusting decrepitude. Less successful is the train tumble into the river gorge – the model work is quite unconvincing – and the passenger trauma is kind of funny, especially when a girder impales a passenger.
Cassandra could’ve lost a few scenes – the sterile Geneva scenes between Mackenzie and Stradner tend to re-emphasize the obvious covert plan to murder passengers – and Novarro’s initial attempt to climb and travel across the roofs of cars to the engine adds little to the film except more running time.
The real stars are Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score – the composer would also score Cosmatos’ blockbuster Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and the epic dud Leviathan (1989) – and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Camille 2000). Camera operator Ron Goodman made his feature film debut with the stellar aerial sequences, and would work on many blockbusters, including Superman (1978), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Quantum of Solace (2008).
The script by Cosmatos, Robert Katz (The Salamander, Kamikaze 1989), and Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, The Eagle Has Landed) borrows material from better genre entries, but certainly stays faithful to the melodrama, ridiculous characters, moments of self-sacrifice, and bathos that’s both endemic to and cherished elements of the disaster genre.
On home video Cassandra never looked particularly good, perhaps due to the grainy stock used by the production and poor home video transfers. Matters weren’t helped when Artisan released the film first in a widescreen DVD and soon replaced it with a full-screen edition – a common problem with the oddball label. Shout’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer that isn’t heavy on the DNR, and the colours are stable if not slightly muted – typical of prior transfers, and perhaps part of Cosmatos’ bleak visual palette.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score always sounded pinched on the stereo CD, and the mono film mix is exceptionally dry; perhaps the production gave short shrift to a high quality sound recording and final mix, as the final soundtrack has barely any bass.
Shout’s paired the film with Stanley Kramer’s The Domino Principle (1977), but there are no extras to contextualize Cassandra. Both productions were released by Sir Lew (“Low”) Grade’s ITC, an outfit known for allocating more budgetary resources on stars instead of production value.
Former golden age cinema beauty Ava Gardner also appeared in two classic disaster film stinkers, Earthquake (1974) and the CanCon classique City on Fire (1979).
Although known as an action director, Cosmatos made surprisingly few films during his 25+ year career. His 11 films are comprised of The Beloved (1971), Massacre in Rome (1973), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Escape to Athena (1979), the killer rodent / CanCon classique Of Unknown Origin (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Cobra (1986), Leviathan (1989), Tombstone (1993), and Shadow Conspiracy (1997).
A few years after his passing in 2005, claims he functioned as a ‘front director’ for Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell emerged, but if one examines the slick montages and obsessive close-ups, it’s a bit tough to write-off Cosmatos as a hack; his strengths may not have been in extracting performances nor writing deft screenplays and dialogue, but Cassandra is proof he could construct slick action entertainment when he had the budget, and skilled technicians.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review