Directed by George Pan Cosmatos
Written by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz, and George Pan Cosmatos
As we plow our way, slowed but undeterred, through the decline of the 70s disaster movie, The Cassandra Crossing spends a significant portion of its 129 minute runtime offering up the hope that, actually, the genre never really got bad, it just never reacquired the popularity that had carried it through the early 1970s, nor the grudging admiration that its glory year of 1974 had coerced out of even its snobbiest detractors. And so The Cassandra Crossing is, for the most part, a snappily-directed thing, delivered within a great deal of jagged 70s style by its director, George Pan Cosmatos. When it claims to have an all-star cast, it actually does—Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, and were I to say "and many more!" I honestly would mean "several more actors you definitely know"—and most of that cast is at least doing what a film like The Cassandra Crossing requires. Some of them are even offering up genuinely good performances anyway. It's got a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score that experiments with noise and atonalities even more than the famously experimental composer usually did. And it has a killer premise that, you'd think, would've led to it being unearthed over these past fifteen months, even if only by the kind of asshole who refers to covid as the "plandemic." Tragically, it does not spend all of its 129 minute runtime fulfilling its tremendous promise; and, yep, ultimately it reaches a point that I can't even claim it's not bad. But for a while, it was almost great, which means it's disappointing in ways that other disaster movies that might be, on average, worse movies (Earthquake, Two-Minute Warning) were not, though its all-too-close cousin, The Andromeda Strain, is disappointing in almost exactly the same ways, only Cassandra Crossing is moreso.
It opens auspiciously nevertheless, with some unusually excellent helicopter photography of a gorgeous alpine landscape that moves from the mountains into a mitteleuropan city with almost uncanny smoothness, and "really great second-unit cinematography" shall remain a fixture of the film throughout, with its elegant aerial tracking shots across acres of landscape, its doom-laden impressions of ancient bridges, and its numerous "point-of-view" shots from the front of trains plunging headlong into unknowns. Our destination for now is the International Health Organization headquarters in Geneva—a so-thinly-veiled-I-don't-know-why-they-bothered stand-in for the World Health Organization, and while the building we arrive at is the facelessly modernist International Labour Office Building, it's a good stand-in, and some very persuasive effort was made to make the ground-level sets look like the WHO, at least until we go inside.
So we enter, along with a pair of men bringing in a third man on a stretcher, for reasons that aren't quite clear but must've been convincing enough for the IHO's personnel to wave them through. Cosmatos follows them with God's-eye view shots as they speed down their prescribed path (like a less-fanciful version of the super-science installation in Fantastic Voyage, the IHO is marked with colored lines to help you get to where you need to go), and by the time anyone realizes they've actually made their way to the American laboratory, or that all three of them are heavily armed, they're already there. They have, however, not been quite discreet enough to avoid a firefight. One of the men is shot to death, and the others, retreating into a stockroom, are doused with a bacterial culture. One gets wounded, and within hours is dead of this "pneumonic plague." The other (Lou Castel) bounds out the window, making his way through Geneva and stowing away aboard a train headed out of Switzerland. This brings in Col. MacKenzie (Lancaster) and the IHO's Dr. Stadner (Bergman repertory player Ingrid Thulin), who shall disagree over how to handle this situation, but for now there's no way to stop a train full of plague that's already left the station.
Our disaster, then, is centered upon that train's crew and passengers, above all Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Harris), a neurologist who's just found fame thanks to his radical new techniques for encouraging brain cell growth in the mentally disabled. (I don't think "absence of brain cells" is the problem, generally, but I'm no scientist.) He's been chased aboard by his twice-ex-wife, Jennifer (Loren), for the sound reason that disaster movies often have estranged spouses brought back together by their perilous circumstances. Also taking the trip to, they think, Basel, and then on to Paris and finally to Stockholm, are O.J. Simpson, as a very unconvincing priest, Ava Gardner, as the playgirl wife of an arms dealer, Martin Sheen, as her mountaineering boytoy, Lionel Stander, as the conductor, and Lee Strasberg, as Kasner, an old tramp who might well live on this train, constantly pulling ostentatious scams while fooling nobody, mostly harmless and even charming. Plus there are a couple of cabins' worth of hippies, some of whom have a band in order to shoehorn in an original pop song in a "Morning After" vein. Chamberlain, anyway, is apprised of the infected fugitive by radio, and tasked with tracking him down, but by the time he does it's too late—he's had contact with dozens of people (even retched all over the food in the kitchen), and MacKenzie's orders have changed from retrieving the terrorist to quarantining the train, complete with a complement of armed guards, and sending it into isolation on a disused rail line in Poland. Worse, their new itinerary sends them over the Kasandruv Bridge, named in honor of the Trojan princess whom no one believed, for despite the assurances which MacKenzie provides to Chamberlain, the Cassandra Crossing has been in decay since its abandonment in 1948, and has been expected to collapse ever since.
To its credit, there are aspects of this screenplay that seem like they're respecting the audience's intelligence, and the big one is that MacKenzie is an extremely flawed conduit of information, accused of lying but really just full of shit, in that his orders tell him to send the train over the Cassandra Crossing—a phrase, incidentally, that gets slightly annoying if you hear it too often, and depending on your temperament "too often" might be "just once"—but he doesn't quite know whether he's being bullshitted at or not, or whether the bridge will collapse or not, and the movie assumes the audience can figure out long before they're told explicitly that whoever's giving him his orders, they would strongly prefer it if the bridge did collapse and everybody died, thus obviating any need to explain why an American biowarfare agent was being held in Switzerland. (In full frankness, I don't think this is a good plan—if it was an airplane, it'd be a good plan, but not a train—but I can always spot a movie its premise.) Meanwhile, at least as MacKenzie's incarnated in Lancaster, older-looking than I've ever seen him and whose fading authority is further emphasized by the pristine white set design of the IHO office and Ennio Guarnieri's uncomfortably washed-out cinematography, we have a pretty well-drawn character: a man who plainly does still care that he might be sending these people to their deaths, but will inevitably obey his commands anyway—and Cosmatos makes some very smart framing choices in these scenes to underline further that MacKenzie is effectively almost as much a prisoner of the system he represents as his victims.
On the other hand, there's the terrorists—or whatever they are—who are the purest plot machinery you'll ever see, existing solely to get Bacterium A on board Train B, devoid of any stated motivation or even anything you can readily infer, and whose longest-lasting member appears to have gotten half-zombified by fever, given his total indifference to whether he's spreading a virulent disease that I think the film wants us to assume he went to the IHO in the first place in order to destroy. (If they were there to steal it, and spread it, just to see the world burn, he's not quite deliberate enough to sell that angle, either.) In any event, this carelessness is smeared all over the first act of this outbreak movie: every single person, including people that damned sure ought to know better, like Dr. Chamberlain, act like they've never even heard of germ theory before. The amount of unrequested and unnecessary touching is just absurd: I mean, I realize that there were different social codes back then regarding, for example, sweaty adult men giving affectionate kisses to children they've never met. But even for 1977, it's a little much.
Even so, his mishandling of his actors' blocking notwithstanding—and it is, in all seriousness, a very big problem how nobody recoils from physical contact in a cramped space they've just been told is full of disease—in most other respects Cosmatos is directing the hell out of the screenplay he co-wrote with Robert Katz and Tom Mankiewicz (Joseph's son, incidentally, and I suppose it's worth mentioning that Cosmatos is of course Mandy director Panos's dad). I've mentioned several of Cassandra Crossing's more endearing aesthetic elements already, and, even beyond that excellent heist-gone-wrong setpiece to start things off, Cosmatos does a fine job introducing us to a cast of disaster movie meat while also ratcheting up the tension—every cutaway to MacKenzie feels like a vice twisting one notch tighter—and managing to conjure a palpable atmosphere of doom within the train, especially as they finally stop but only so men in white spacesuits and carrying machine pistols can seal it with metal and shoot anybody that tries to get off. Not every shot is a winner (a lot of it is just coverage inside a fake train), but enough are to elevate this well beyond a perfunctory disaster flick, and it's hard to deny that somebody was trying, at least, in that great reveal of the biowarfare soldiers as the stadium lights slowly, slowly warm up and gradually reveal their white figures in the darkness around the rail line, or in the controlled panic of the tracking shots that take Chamberlain and company on the hunt for the infected man. By and large, Cosmatos handles his actors well, too; it's nice to see Gardner in a role better-suited to an aging beauty than the hagged-up abomination she played in Earthquake, and if Simpson isn't "good," his lack of acumen is used well as a man pretending, poorly, to be something he isn't.
Harris and Loren are good as the protagonists, however, and while it's very easy to just snark on the way it tears right into the utter cliché of it (though in 1977 "exes getting back together" wasn't nearly as big a disaster movie cliché as it is now), it at least always feels like this disaster is happening to our pair of ex-lovers, rather than happening because of our pair of ex-lovers. (Or, well, it feels that way until the last few shots, but by this point the movie's gotten pretty lousy altogether.) They play their oddly-specific ex-lovers quite well, too, with some solid chemistry despite Harris looking ten years too old for her (don't drink, kids—he was only four years older than her), and Loren is probably the best in show with her array of vulnerable looks thrown in Harris's direction. And there's something adorably cheeky, almost screwball-comedy, about how their backstory establishes they've not just been married and divorced, but have already been married and divorced twice. It's the kind of detail that's weird enough—and carried through in the performances enough—to make their dynamic actually interesting.
But as I've repeatedly said that Cassandra Crossing sucks, I should probably stop complimenting it and explain why. Without wanting to spoil it too badly, the essence of it is that, at a certain point, it stops being about its disaster, and instead of pursuing its paranoid thriller in conjunction with its bacteriological catastrophe, it abandons its bacteriological catastrophe and just throws everything it has into being yet another post-Vietnam, post-Watergate movie about how the military-industrial complex just wants to cover up its mistakes and only Richard Harris and his fellow resisters can fight off the literally-faceless government hordes. The disease is really only an excuse to get to this part—as far as plague movies go, this one is downright dispiritingly gutless—and while there's some decent thriller ideas in the last forty minutes of Cassandra Crossing, the utter reorientation of what the movie's going to be "about" now makes it feel like it's slowing down to a molasses crawl right when it should be barreling towards a climax. It's also where its most glaring technological weaknesses come into play, with some preposterously bad greenscreen work on top of the train (in fairness, it matches this with some good real-life stuntwork, when we can't see the actor's face), and a finale bearing the kind of breathtakingly shitty modelwork that looks like it was accomplished in a train enthusiast's basement.
It's a crying shame, because till now The Cassandra Crossing has been a superior example of its genre: it's a disaster movie that, for over an hour, feels like it might actually be dealing with some fascinatingly thorny moral conundrums—it is a literal trolley problem—but it decays into something so much less interesting the instant it decides to wallow in some knee-jerk mistrust of authority and reduce those conundrums to some boringly stark aesops about "just following orders." (Does it reference the Holocaust? You bet, and its saving grace is that it doesn't make a direct comparison in dialogue.) The whole last twenty minutes is just a lousy 70s action movie, and that's a hell of a disheartening place for a 70s disaster movie to wind up.
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