Monday, November 06, 2006

It Came From Netflix! The Last Voyage (1960)

Robert Stack was already a veteran of the proto-Disaster Movie genre by the time he appeared in this, via his earlier role as a panicking pilot in John Wayne’s 1954 The High and the Mighty. Oddly, he failed to be called upon during the Disaster Movie heydays of the 1970’s, save for an appearance as the captain of another endanger passenger liner, this one threatened by a bomber in the 1975 TV movie Adventures of the Queen. Immortality was assured, however, when he was cast by the Abrahams/Zucker team for their classic genre spoof Airplane!

The Last Voyage is a nifty entry in the shipwreck genre, which prior to this was mostly stocked with various films about the Titanic. One advantage it has over its oft-bloated ‘70s cousins is that it focuses on but a few characters instead of a larger, ‘star’-studded cast, and just moves. The film is a brief 90 minutes, and from the opening (and ongoing) narration by the ship’s Third Mate, which confirms the doomed fate of the SS Claridon (just in case the title didn’t give things away), events move at a pretty quick clip, more or less in real time.

We open on the Claridon, a still luxurious but aged liner only a few trips away from being consigned to the scrap yard. We briefly meet some of the main characters, including the ship’s patrician Captain Adams (George Sanders), and a vacationing family, Cliff Henderson (Stack), his wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone), and their seven year-old moppet Jill. Other names in the cast include Edmund O’Brien as Second Engineer Walsh, and (yay!) muscular Woody Strode—who spends the entire film shirtless and seemingly oiled down—as a crewmember. Strode's role here is quite a bit bigger than he usually got, and that's all to the good.

Early on the ship’s engine room catches fire. They manage to put it out, but Walsh’s request that they stop the engines for in inspection is vetoed by Adams, who is more worried about arriving back at port on time. Needless to say, given the nature of the film, this is a bad idea. First, the initial fire has traveled up a flue and set an upper deck on fire. Worse, when one of the boilers begins overheating, they learn that several of the safety valves have been fused. Despite their valiant efforts, a huge explosion rips its way up through every deck of the ship.

While the Captain tragically continues to dither, the situation grows worse. Eventually, however, it becomes apparent the ship is going to sink. However, there’s a hitch for our featured passengers. The explosion ripped through the Henderson’s cabin. Even after a tense sequence as Cliff attempts to save his young daughter (caught on a slight ledge on the opposite side of the now floorless chamber), there’s the fact that Laura is pinned down by a heavy piece of wreckage. With the crew obviously having its hands full, Cliff must find a way to free her before she drowns in the sinking ship.

That’s about it, but it’s all in the execution. The film is well enough made that, despite the fact that we know the Claridon is going to sink—that’s what the whole movie is about, after all—I still found myself somehow hoping that the crew’s efforts would save the ship. Aiding immensely is the fact that the movie was shot on a real ship, the French passenger liner Ile de France. They actually flooded some of the ship during the sinking scenes, and except for a very few shots, the transitions from the real ship to the presumed miniatures and studio sets are seamless.

It weird to me how Hollywood seems to have so much trouble making films like this anymore. The Last Voyage is no classic, and certainly by today’s lights some of the acting is a bit wooden. (We are talking Bob Stack here, after all.) However, it’s a cleanly efficient effort, one that sets fairly modest goals and then manages to hit them all in an entirely professional manner.

I wish they still made movies like that.


At 6:27 PM, Blogger Jessica R said...

And it seems to be a recent problem too. I watched the film version of The Fugitive last night. And I always remember it being longer than it is. It's close to two hours, but it moves. The murder and trial are barely over before the credits, then the bush crash, escape, confrontation, and next the race to prove his innocence. I noticed a lot more nice character touches too. Jones paternal moment with the underling that was nearly shot, Ford's expression of relief at at least being able to save someone as the boy is wheeled into surgery. And not a colored filter, mtv edit, or outrunning a fireball to be found.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Actually, my favorite moment in The Fugitive was when Jones tried to shoot Kimble to death (when he was saved by the bullet-proof glass), even *after* he had half come to believe that Kimble was innocent. His job was to stop Kimble, and his guilt or innocence really didn't matter much.

I will say that I found the whole conspiracy thing entirely rote and tiresome. One of the problems with action movies today is that they always want to make them 'mean' something. Les Misérables wouldn't be a better story if Jean Valjean proved to be the innocent victim of a government/military industrial complex cover-up.


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