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Assault on a Queen

Assault on a Queen(1966)

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teaser Assault on a Queen (1966)

Frank Sinatra liked his caper films. After robbing Vegas with his Rat Pack buddies in Ocean's 11 (1960) and breaking out of a World War II prison camp in Von Ryan's Express (1965), he was back with an even more improbable plan in Assault on a Queen: robbing the Queen Mary with a salvaged German submarine.

The rather implausible plot is courtesy of a pulp novel by Jack Finney, author of the science fiction classics Time and Again and The Body Snatchers (which was turned into the great Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, but as the film opens it feels more like an updated To Have and Have Not than an Ocean's knock-off. Sinatra is Hemingway-esque World War II vet Mark Brittain, a former submarine commander who now runs a failing charter boat service and deep-sea diving business in the Bahamas with his partner Linc (Errol John), a reformed alcoholic who is completely devoted to Mark. They're hired by a team of fortune hunters--smug ne'er do well Vic (Anthony Franciosa), his wealthy Italian girlfriend Rosa (Virna Lisi), and former German U-boat officer Eric Lauffnauer (Swedish star and filmmaker Alf Kjellan)--with a treasure map that supposedly marks the spot of a sunken Spanish galleon. What they find is a German submarine that was scuttled during the war, a discovery that inspires the fortune hunters to raise the sub so they can play pirate. Their new get-rich-quick scheme is a heist of a luxury liner on the high seas with the help of dummy torpedoes.

Don't sweat the details. The filmmakers certainly didn't. The plot, which involves secretly raising the wreck and completely rehabilitating it after 20 years under the sea, holds water as well as a submarine with a screen door. It's all about the chutzpah of the plan--and really, the whole concept is irresistible--and the tension between the partners in crime. Franciosa specialized in a glib, gladhanding schemers, which makes him a perfect Vic, a would-be adventurer and opportunist with a cold smile, a greedy nature, and an ego that gets put out when Rosa drops him for Mark. It's a big, flamboyant performance, which contrasts well with Sinatra's underplayed war vet Mark. Level-headed and practical, Mark doesn't take charge, he simply offers his two cents and his elbow grease, but Sinatra's easy, unforced authority grounds the plan, and the film, for that matter.

Continental actress Lisi isn't called upon to do much more than play the cool, glamorous beauty but she makes you feel the heat between Rosa and Mark as they exchange glances. Kjellan brings dignity to the role of Eric, whose respect for Mark gives them a shared camaraderie despite once having fought on opposite sides. Richard Conte joins the team as a mechanic recruited to get the engines in working order.

Director Jack Donohue, who started out making Red Skelton comedies before moving to television, is no action filmmaker, but he had history with Sinatra. He directed dozens of episodes of Sinatra's variety show in the 1950s and in 1965 he directed Sinatra in the feature film Marriage on the Rocks, a romantic farce co-starring Deborah Kerr and Dean Martin. His direction is decidedly studio-bound, shooting largely against rear projection and on sets. Shots of the submarine in motion were clearly models in a studio tank but the shipboard sequence was shot on location aboard the actual Queen Mary, which was moored near Los Angeles at the time of shooting.

In a curious bit of production casting against type, the great Duke Ellington scored the film with a swinging score. It gives the film a bounce and suits the personality of Sinatra's Mark, but it doesn't help drive the action or create suspense. It helps turn Assault on a Queen into a variation of a Rat Pack lark with a different cast of not-so-reliable partners in crime executing their dream heist against all odds.

By Sean Axmaker

Sinatra: Hollywood His Was, Timothy Knight. Running Press, 2010.
Sinatra In Hollywood, Tom Santopietro. St. Martin's Press, 2008.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films

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