Directed by Ronald Neame
Written by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Paul Gallico)
Up until The Poseidon Adventure's release in the December of 1972, I don't know if you can really say there existed such a thing as "the 1970s disaster movie." Tradition holds, of course, that Airport, two years old in the winter of '72, was the beginning of the trend, and while Poseidon's pre-production predates it, it is undoubtedly true that producer Irwin Allen must've had Airport somewhere in mind when he moved the rights to Paul Gallico's 1969 novel about a shipwreck from their original owners, Avco Embassy, to his own independent house, Kent Productions. It's equally certain that when Allen went to 20th Century Fox to persuade them to pick up the tab for half his film's $5 millionish budget, he would've referred to Airport's success more than once, indeed, likely more frequently than he would have referred to his own successes as a producer, director, or TV showrunner, though he may have suggested (probably not very convincingly) that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea gave him some special insight into maritime danger. But I think there's cause to question the idea that there was only ever the one "Airport formula" for the disaster movie—to get down to brass tacks, Airport is a "disaster movie" with a body count of one, and the one body it delivers is its villain's (also, it even has "a villain" in the first place, rather than a faceless force)—and so there may also be cause to question the actual magnitude of its influence.
Because The Poseidon Adventure was the even bigger blockbuster, with its $125 million haul, and it is "like Airport" mostly in the sense that it features a vehicle beset by a calamity (not exactly Airport's original innovation), and bears something akin to an Airport-style sprawling all-star cast which, besides its leading man, is also comprised mostly of ingenues and character actors (albeit much more recognizable character actors). But it does not have the intertwining soap operas; in their place it has a narrative arc, plus actual themes, and surprisingly serious themes, at that. It does not bank on suspense, at least not for as long. (It was also less than half as expensive, which seems impossible, considering the enormously-distinct levels of spectacle involved.) Above all, it's a disaster film that doesn't depend on a single point of failure (a bomb going off on an airlane) and it has nothing like Airport's predictable binary between total catastrophe and total survival. To get necessarily reductive about the disaster genre as it was evolving in the 1970s, Poseidon offers up its ensemble cast of characters so that they can be killed. (There probably isn't any real throughline from "70s disaster flick" to "80s slasher movie," but, you know, it is hard not to notice that the one sprang up at pretty much the exact moment the other went extinct.) That evolution from 1972 onward more often took the form of another Poseidon Adventure in another setting (and, not infrequently, the same setting), and by the third Airport film even Airport was basing itself directly on the model established here: a cast of characters introduced, a big bad thing happening that kills many of the ones who don't have names while isolating the ones who do, and then randomly picking them off to demonstrate that we live and die in a hostile, godless cosmos, and so there's nobody to save us but us, and that many of us will not be saved, regardless.
They are not usually so explicit about the existentialism of it all, let alone so uncompromising about it. But Poseidon is, and so, in addition to many other finer points of the film's production—and despite some pretty blatant weaknesses!—I think this is why, besides just being the first of its breed, it's also the best, and not by any small margin. Even the presumptive second-best, The Towering Inferno, is more about the hubris of man (as, ahem, channeled through a story about the inadequacy of fire codes) than it is about the absence of an inherent moral arc to the universe. Poseidon gets up to a little punishment for those it's deemed cocky, and a fair amount of punishment for those it's deemed complacent, but never more than seems inevitable in a world indifferent to human life; it's hard to say that it exists to punish anybody in particular.
There is an implacability to Poseidon—even a nihilism—that is both appealing and terrifying, and that has rarely been replicated in the disaster genre, even after the 1970s. Indeed, they become more irritatingly moralistic and "safe" for audience consumption the farther we get away from it, and ever more apt to mete out judgment to the guilty while rewarding the righteous (and/or the main characters), till finally you find yourself in 2012, and the whole world ends largely just to make a couple reconsider their divorce. Poseidon, then, is maybe the closest that the disaster genre, despite co-existing with it, ever got to "New Hollywood" in terms of attitude. Of course, it had only slight overlap with the New Hollywood in terms of personnel—director Ronald Neame's first film to call his own came out in 1947, and Allen had been hawking phanstasmic juvenilia to tweens for almost as long, though cinematographer Harold E. Stine had just shot MASH—so maybe it's just Gene Hackman being in it that makes me feel that way, because it has only the slightest connection in terms of filmmaking technique (or even acting technique), either. But there's something about it that feels more in tune with its times than its fellows: an anguished howl into an empty void—it climaxes with precisely such a thing—that plants it firmly into the early 70s even more than all its more cosmetic elements do, and that is amazing for what was marketed as (and, by its director's own happy admission, still basically is) a matinee for children.
This elevation (and I would call it "elevation") went universally unnoticed at the time—it continues to be overlooked—and while Poseidon is generally well-liked and was generally well-received for what it was, even in 1972, it is terrifically fucking aggravating to read contemporary notices that "praise" the film with endless backhanded swipes, for example Roger Ebert's unbearably glib positive review that reads more like prose MAD Magazine than something printed by a newspaper,* and reminds one that bilious condescension wasn't invented by bloggers in the 2000s. It's a review that concludes, "The Poseidon Adventure is the kind of movie that you know is going to be awful, but somehow you gotta see it, right?" Whatever, Rog. You wrote an unfunny comedy about bosoms. (Which is as good a place to shoehorn in that, yes, Poseidon is to a remarkable degree a movie about legs, one that gets downright militant about stripping the skirts off its female cast, if not, for some reason—and this is the part that makes it so dispiritingly obvious—Shelley Winters.)
To the extent a "plot" recap is necessary, 1100 words in seems like a place to start. That brings us to the S.S. Poseidon, on its final voyage from New York to Athens and then to the scrapyard, much to the chagrin of its commander, Capt. Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), who chafes at the new owners' callous disregard for the age of the ship and its insufficient ballast in their haste to get their wrecking crews at it; and, indeed, this "insufficient ballast" business may turn out to be important in a few minutes. In the meantime, though, it's still a working cruise liner, and its intended fate is naturally immaterial to the passengers who've come aboard to celebrate a New Year's cruise in mid-budget style. There are dozens, though the ones who concern us only number ten: young Robin Shelby (Eric Shea), looked after by his roughly college-aged sister Susan (Pamela Sue Martin), on a trip to reunite with their parents already in Europe; police detective Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, former prostitute Linda (Stella Stevens), who worries that she's serviced at least one member of the Poseidon's crew during her tenure; Belle Rosen (Winters) and her husband Manny (Jack Albertson), retirees on a tour of the Mediterranean en route to their ultimate destination of Israel to join their children and grandchild; James Martin (Red Buttons), soft-spoken haberdasher and ambiguous bachelor; Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), a singer whose band has bargained passage for playing the New Year's festivities; porter Acres (Roddy McDowall), who is not a "passenger," but let's include him on our list anyway, since he "matters"; and, the one who "matters" most of all, fiery reverend Frank Scott (Hackman), whose very first line, presented in medias res by Neame and editor Harold F. Kress with a dizzying splat, is about how God is an uncaring son of a bitch, and it's high time humankind came to terms with it.
It turns out he's talking to the ship's chaplain (Arthur O'Connell), who remains polite despite obviously disagreeing—when asked later what he thought about Scott's Randian Sunday sermon, Chaplain John replies with a disapproving shrug, "You spoke only to the strong"—and one of the very fascinating things about The Poseidon Adventure, I think, is that Scott's reverse-Jesus story is the only story that does more than inflect its characters' personalities, let alone "pay off" in any traditional narrative way. Take Linda, former sex worker: this is a pretty in-your-face character, and we are made to understand that her history is deeply important to her and pointedly not important at all to her husband (on balance, I think it is a very sweet and humane portrayal, despite the sitcommish framing); and by the hour mark, the movie has emphatically stopped caring about this, making it questionable whether it ever really did. Same with Red Buttons' bachelor, whom we can interpret as gay, or a widower, or even a heterosexual horndog with enough sense of decorum not to actively hit on a traumatized victim in the middle of a disaster—and the screenplay provides sufficient evidence for each of these interpretations—since what the film cares about in regards to his character is that he's so tremendously mild and nice and unwilling to give up on Nonnie, even though she's a total load (and she really is, even in comparison to Mrs. Rosen, who won't shut up about how being modestly fat makes her useless). Other than the kid, Robin—I disagreeably find that the film does somewhat mark him as safe, and probably his sister, too—I don't think you could ever figure out just from first principles who lives and who dies here. Sure: I think you might be right about Linda, but I earnestly believe you'd be right for the wrong reasons. Even when she's pitched in a pretty bitchy register—though by no means is this consistent, for Linda has unstressed moments of selflessness that simply aren't as flashy as some of the others'—I don't think the movie kills her for it. I think it kills her for the same reason it kills everybody else: for being alive. It even begins its slaughter with no small amount of disorientation: there is significant reason to believe that Leslie Nielsen will be playing a much more prominent character than he actually does.
For the Poseidon does have its date with destiny, scheduled for thirty seconds after midnight, January 1. That's when a quake sends an enormous wave that they fail to get their bow into, and that top-heaviness so forcefully foreshadowed earlier turns out to be rather important indeed when the wave flips the ship upside down, and therefore mostly underwater and slowly flooding. I was astonished to discover that this happens more than fifty full minutes into the movie: kudos to Neame and Kress for never once allowing a fairly long first act to feel like it's dragged, and more credit besides for the nerve-jangling cross-cutting between the New Year's celebration and the encroaching disaster—I think the effect is almost entirely in the way that the sound of singing and happy revelers below deck repeatedly cuts out into near-silence as Harrison and his bridge crew basically just stare their impending deaths in the face. This is where Allen's spectacle-mongering comes into the picture in a big way: though it has heretofore been very handsome, using the Queen Mary in lieu of sets, at the 57 minute mark the Poseidon becomes a series of soundstages designed by William Creber that are every bit as detailed and a heck of a lot more evocative, starting with the minute and a half sequence of the ship rolling onto its back. Put together with visceral impact by Neame and Kress with primitive movie magic that just underlines how wincingly physical it is, it sells the chaos of what is, in likelihood, the single most nightmarishly hallucinatory scene in any disaster movie ever made.
That's the centerpiece, but I'm almost more impressed by the visual complexity Poseidon manages afterward, from the drowned Boschian hellscape the ballroom turns into for those who don't follow Scott's lead of trying to reach the lower/now-upper decks of the ship, to pretty much every single scene thereafter. It never loses a deeply uncanny sense of being wrong, because everything is upside down. Neame (and Allen's storyboarders, Poseidon being a fairly strictly-storyboarded production) never neglect to remind us of this fact for more than a few minutes, particularly in an image that for whatever reason sums up The Poseidon Adventure for me, when Robin curiously explores an upside-down men's room. There are more subtle touches that make the effect even more consistent, however, and I'm deeply in love with Stine's constantly-rocking cinematography, which is pretty far from "naturalistic," but is wonderfully expressionistic in a low-key way, finding ample opportunity to use the cool, dim fluorescent emergency illumination in the "ceiling" to light the characters from below, giving them a ghostly, ghastly appearance even before they start to die off.
It establishes a severely grim atmosphere (John Williams' spare but doomy score helps out on occasion; so does the progressive bedraggling of the cast), though Poseidon is never about monotone grimness. The aesthetic is in service of something that could, nominally, be described as "rollicking," and it was obviously crowd-pleasing in its way, even if it is incredibly gloomy for such a thing: what always takes me aback about it is how much Neame and Kress linger on the immediate aftermath of destruction (despite Neame's stated aversion to dead bodies and death scenes—indeed, that revulsion is deeply felt), as well as how much footage they give over to the traumatized faces of the survivors. I have said "better than every other disaster movie" a lot in this review, but this is maybe what Poseidon does best of all: finding its way so frequently into overpowering states of grief and shock after the action has settled down, and all that's left is silence, or screaming, and fewer people than you started with. This holds up all the way into the final seconds of its blunt and flawlessly hollow-feeling denouement.
It is in this regard that Neame did well by giving his actors freer rein than, by his lights, he should have (he's surprisingly and gratifyingly critical of his own film, incidentally, though he also marks it as one of his favorites), and this is particularly the case for Borgnine and even more particularly for Hackman, whose characters' dysfunctional masculine dynamic is the engine for most of the film's shouting matches. But it really works, even at extremis: if Winters appears to have received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film mostly because she let a grief-wracked Hackman drool on her face, it's also one hell of an affecting scene. These actors are, of course, the vessels for most of the film's problems, and it has its fair share, though I think they're pretty trivial. They mainly revolve around Stirling Silliphant's dialogue, which is routinely on-the-nose, and not-infrequently absurd in its bald functionality—Mrs. Rosen's "I was a swimmer!" monologue is, no doubt, objectively terrible screenwriting—though on a macro, structural level, Silliphant and Wendell Mayes's screenplay is more-or-less a stone-cold two-act masterpiece, so it's easy to let it go, especially since the comic book style of characterization and thematic declamation also serves the goal of Poseidon being an instantly-readable, highly-efficient use of its over-before-you-even-know-it two hours. For my part, I would never trade the hits of raw humanity that this film offers for a more "nuanced" approach that would never have worked anyway, and borne along as this story is by the crumbling of its God-hating action priest—that lovely stereotype who was never going to survive the fall of the counterculture—it offers up depths that are downright startling in a blockbuster. So if The Poseidon Adventure is aimed exclusively at the emotions rather than the intellect—and of course it is—that doesn't mean its thrills ever come cheap.
*This is, as you know if you know Ebert, entirely deliberate, and I'll happily admit it's a funny review.
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