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The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing(1977)

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teaser The Cassandra Crossing (1977)

If a flaming skyscraper or an upside-down luxury liner filled with stars could draw in hordes at the box office, the reasoning behind The Cassandra Crossing (1976) follows that three threats against a contained group of big name actors equals twice the box office. Trapped and careening toward a rickety bridge, a trainload full of colorful characters finds itself contending against a deadly, flu-like disease unleashed by some dastardly terrorists intent on blackmailing international governments into releasing its prisoners. A machine gun-toting Richard Harris leads the gallery of international luminaries against the villains while trying to avoid catching a bullet or a cold.

Lavishly mounted by European media tycoons Sir Lew Grade (the head of the British broadcast network ATV) and Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, The Cassandra Crossing was at least partially intended as a star vehicle for Ponti's wife, Sophia Loren, whom he had already guided to stardom in films like Boccaccio '70 [1962]. The late Italian director George P. Cosmatos was signed to direct based on the strength of his 1973 Richard Burton thriller, Massacre in Rome, and of course he went on to become one of the most significant, if not critically lauded, '80s action directors with films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II [1985] and Cobra [1986] as well as his controversial helming of the western Tombstone [1993].

This first teaming of Grade and Ponti was a complex affair, with its rights sold for both American and British network showings before a single frame was shot. The interiors were shot at the famous Cinecitta studios in Rome, with France and Switzerland providing most of the location footage. Unfortunately the Italian authorities were on a rampage against any possible tax dodges, slapping warrants against Ponti, Loren (who sat in custody for a brief period), and many of her co-stars, though nothing materialized in the courtroom except for a judgment against Ponti.

Loren shared most of her scenes with Harris, whose expecting wife, Ann Turkel, received a supporting role in The Cassandra Crossing as well. Loren also found herself sharing screen time with another famous sultry beauty, Ava Gardner, essentially reprising her role from the earlier disaster flick, Earthquake [1974]. According to Sophia Loren: A Biography, the two women got along well with former party girl Gardner supplying some invaluable acting advice: "Always shoot your closeups first thing in the morning, honey, 'cause your looks ain't gonna hold out all day."

The rest of the high-profile cast is easily one of the most bizarre of the period, with Burt Lancaster in an uncharacteristic role as the steel-jawed mastermind plotting the train's path with a plague-carrying anarchist aboard sneezing on the passengers' food. It was a busy year for the always in-demand star, who managed to also shoot Twilight's Last Gleaming and The Island of Dr. Moreau (both 1977) back to back. Other familiar faces include a young Martin Sheen (paired off as Gardner's love interest!!), footballer-turned-tabloid-sensation O.J. Simpson (a clear bid to reprise his success from The Towering Inferno [1974]), acting coach Lee Strasberg, colorful character actor Lionel Stander (Cul-de-sac [1966]), and this being an Italian co-production, after all a host of European cult actors including Ray Lovelock (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie [1974]), John Phillip Law (Danger: Diabolik [1968]), and two Luchino Visconti veterans, Ingrid Thulin (The Damned [1969]) and Alida Valli (Senso [1954]).

Unfortunately, a waning public demand for disaster films had set in by the time The Cassandra Crossing unspooled in theaters in early 1977, with its R rating and surprisingly harsh finale certainly not helping word of mouth. Critics were less than impressed, though the expert cinematography and rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith were elements singled out for frequent praise. Even the man who started the disaster craze, Irwin Allen, found it difficult to continue luring audiences in with increasingly absurd projects at the same time including The Swarm [1978] and When Time Ran Out [1980], paving the way for science fiction operas to take over Hollywood instead. Seen in retrospect, The Cassandra Crossing can at least be savored for its unique concoction of star power as well as an audacious storyline which can still astound viewers confident they've seen it all before.

Producers: Lew Grade, Carlo Ponti
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Screenplay: Robert Katz, Tom Mankiewicz, George P. Cosmatos
Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri
Production Design: Aurelio Crugnola
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: Robert Silvi
Cast: Sophia Loren (Jennifer Rispoli Chamberlain), Richard Harris (Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain), Martin Sheen (Robby Navarro), O.J. Simpson (Haley), Lionel Stander (Max), Ann Turkel (Susan), Ingrid Thulin (Dr. Elena Stradner), Lee Strasberg (Herman Kaplan), Ava Gardner (Nicole Dressler), Burt Lancaster (Col. Stephen Mackenzie), John Phillip Law (Major Stark).
C-129m. Letterboxed.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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