Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Quite Possibly the Greatest Disaster Movie You've Never Heard Of :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Andrew and Virginia Stone's The Last Voyage (1960)

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"The SS Claridon, a proud ship, a venerable ship, but as ships go, an old ship. A very old ship. For 38 years she's weathered everything the elements could throw at her. Typhoons, zero-zero fogs, the scorching heat of the tropics. Now she is scheduled for only five more crossings. Then a new ship, a posh, streamlined beauty, will take her place. It is then that the Claridon will pass into oblivion. She has an appointment with the scrapyard. But it's an appointment she'll never keep. For this is her last voyage."
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The last voyage this narrator so ominously opines begins mid-journey, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And then, barely a minute into the film, disaster strikes when a fire breaks out in the engine room and spreads thru several decks ... Wait. No. Check that. The fire had already broken out, and so, the film actually begins with a note handed to Captain Adams (Sanders), alerting him to this situation. And despite the best efforts of second engineer Walsh (O’Brien), taking over for the chief engineer who died, and his crew, the domino-effect of these fires on the rest of ship’s innards, particularly the engine room, cannot be contained. And as things get exponentially worse, nearly everyone tries to convince the captain that the cascading damage is too much for such and old ship; and it’s only a matter of time before the Claridon could, probably, will, definitely, sink, and perhaps he should alert the passengers of this, send an S.O.S., and begin evacuation procedures but Adams stubbornly refuses to do anything, insisting the ship will be fine.

Meanwhile, the Hendersons, Cliff (Stack), Laurie (Malone) and daughter, Jill (Marihugh), blissfully unaware of the chaos below and the crisis on the bridge, are enjoying the amenities of the ship. Seems Cliff has been transferred to Tokyo on business and decided to make a mini-vacation out of the move. But just as he leaves their cabin to retrieve his wife’s purse, left in the dining area, a now out of control boiler detonates several decks right below them, violently rocking the whole ship. With that, mass panic ensues above as the engine room starts flooding underneath.

And after fighting his way back to their cabin, Cliff finds Laurie alive but nearly crushed, her legs pinned under a twisted steel beam that he could not even begin to budge; and Jill is stuck on a precarious perch on the other side of a gaping hole where the floor used to be, giving the occupants a first hand view of the sky above and what’s left of the boiler room six decks below. 

And while Cliff manages a harrowing rescue of Jill, Laurie is still irrevocably trapped. And to make this bad situation even more dire, the explosion also tore a hole in the hull big enough that the pumps cannot handle the influx and the bulkheads will not hold. Thus, the Claridon is now officially sinking, and will most probably be completely sunk within the hour...

Essentially shot in real time, for the next 80-some minutes of its taut and unrelenting 91-minute total, The Last Voyage (1960) squeezes every ounce of tension it can as it puts the audience through an emotional wringer, making it probably the greatest, unsung disaster movie you’ve never heard of -- and that’s a damn shame. For, long before Irwin Allen was capsizing ocean liners or torching skyscrapers with all-star casts, and predating that glorious glut of similarly themed airline disaster movies of the 1970s, filmmakers Andrew and Virginia Stone were setting the template for the genre-to-be as far back as the mid-1950s.

Before, unless dealing with recreating some natural disaster [The Hurricane (1937) The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)], or historical recreations [A Night to Remember (1958], these kinds of movies were usually about potential disasters [No Highway in the Sky (1951), Zero Hour! (1954), The High and the Mighty (1954)], where everyone’s gonna die unless through some luck and true grit and, most times, a little divine intervention, these most catastrophic results were averted by the skin of the protagonists’ teeth.

Even the Stones own Julie (1956), a delightful pants-on-fire melodrama, where stewardess Doris Day’s psycho ex-husband (Louis Jourdan) keeps trying to kill her, which climaxes on a airplane, with the pilot dead, the co-pilot mortally wounded, and Day pressed into the captain’s seat to take the stick, ends with her successfully landing the plane, saving the other passengers. They’d done it before with a plane, a bomb, and a blackmail scheme in Cry Terror (1958) that ended happily ever after, too. But with The Last Voyage, before the audience has even settled in, the excrement hits the fan and the clock starts ticking; a bit of reverse engineering as the focus shifts from those who prevent to several overlapping groups trying to survive; a true epoch moment for the genre, where the actual disaster itself moves the plot along.

Andrew Stone had always been innovative as a filmmaker, beginning with Stormy Weather (1943), the first all-colored musical shot for a wide release, but after bouncing around several studios his desire for full creative control found him striking out on his own around 1950 with wife, Virginia, who would serve as co-producer, editor, and production manager on their collaborations. Dubbed "Hollywood's only man-and-wife moviemakers", what followed were a string of low-budget crime thrillers with a very distinctive documentarian look and feel. Verisimilitude was always one of the Stones trademarks. Eschewing sets and studios as much as possible in a dogged pursuit of realism, the Stones shot as much as they could wherever they could on location, be it on a real street, a real office building, on a train, or on an airplane.

Inspired by the wreck of the Andrea Doria, which collided with another ship and sank off Nantucket island in 1956, the Stones decided to up the ante and tackle a maritime disaster of their own and sold the idea to MGM for funds and distribution, leaving the couple to figure out how to pull it off. And then fate stepped in. For, in the strangest of coincidences, one of the first ships to answer the Andrea Doria’s S.O.S. was the Ile de France, a luxury liner, which had cruised the Atlantic between Paris and New York since 1926, and had survived World War II as a troop transport, but by 1959 she was headed for a final reckoning with a Japanese scrap-yard. World famous for its accouterments, amenities and beautiful art deco interiors, this all made the ship ripe for the plucking. And so, before it would meet its final, rendered fate, the Ile de France was given a temporary pardon, destined to set sail one last time and meet a (premature) ignominious end on film.

See, when Stone got wind of the Ile de France’s impending demise, when all other in-service cruise-lines flatly refused to allow him to fake blow-up their ships and film it, he negotiated its lease from the salvage company for his movie. And though the thought of this appalled the original owners, who tried to stop this (but eventually relented with a guarantee that all mention of Il de France be removed from the ship and any publicity materials), and while the new owners were guaranteed that he wouldn’t actually sink it, Stone had his Claridon -- and a free hand to basically do as much damage as he liked to get what he wanted on screen, where, with a combination of massive pyrotechnics and fire-hoses he basically did everything BUT sink the ship, much to the peril of his cast and crew, and much to the eventual chagrin of critics and audience members who easily identified it. “Farcical Finish of A Famous Old Ship” screamed a LIFE magazine article on the film’s production, which eulogized the Île de France as an “ill-fated victim of movie realism."

Nearly fifty years removed from any of these sentimental attachments, one can only watch what Stone did to both the ship and his actors in The Last Voyage and shake our collective heads, boggle, and then splutter and question the sanity of those involved; but, damn, if it isn’t effective. From the futile efforts to contain the rapidly flooding engine room, to the raging fires, to the multiple explosions, to the collapse of one of the smokestacks, to the actually flooding of the ship to get the proper list and the eventual full submergence of the bow for the climax, Stone’s camera is front and center; and what it captures as the cast valiantly tries to prioritize, sacrifice, and save as many lives as they can really sucks you in and garnered the production an Academy Award nomination for special effects.

Now, for the benefit of those readers who haven’t had the opportunity to watch The Last Voyage yet, Spoilers Ahoy from here on out as Cliff desperately searches for professional help to free his wife when additional muscle proves just as fruitless, finding it initially with Lawson (Strode), one of the engineers, who confirms only a blowtorch will free and save Laurie. For this they’ll need not one cumbersome tank, but two (oxygen and acetylene). And while they manage to get one into the cabin, it takes so long the other is now trapped underwater in the sealed-off engine room. Meantime, Adams has finally come around and the dreaded announcement is finally given: abandon ship.

With that, Laurie convinces Cliff to get Jill to one of the lifeboats. And once they’re gone, with no hope, a distraught Laurie knows the only way Cliff will ever leave the ship without her is if she is already dead. Begging him to kill her, she scares off Lawson with this talk. Alone, she manages to get her hands on a shard of glass and tries to slash her wrists, but the distraught Laurie cannot go through with it. When Lawson reports his wife’s fragile mental state to Cliff, he leaves Jill with him and returns to the cabin, where the rising water has started lapping in under the fractured wall. (The Hendersons cabin was built in the Ill de France’s swimming pool so it could be flooded under *ahem* nominally controlled conditions.) Back on deck, Lawson gets Jill to safety and bellows at the others in the lifeboat to get to the rescue ship and bring back an acetylene tank. If they even heard him, no one can say.

Meanwhile, Adams is starting to feel the wrath of his subordinates for his earlier inaction, and even comes to blows with Walsh, who managed to only save five out of his original crew of 38 from the engine room. A desperate Cliff tracks them both down on the bridge, holding out hope that one of them can provide a miracle. But there are none to be had on the doomed Claridon. All Walsh can do is reaffirm that without a blowtorch, Laurie is destined to drown. And judging by the rising level of water, she only has about another ten minutes. All seems lost for the Hendersons, then, until salvation comes from a most unexpected source.

Honestly, this isn’t one of Edmond O’Brien’s best acting efforts. As Walsh he spits the bit quite frequently, and there’s a lot of scenery with his teeth marks left in them, which presciently predicted another disaster movie staple, I guess. To be fair, the whole cast was put through all kinds of hell during the production. O’Brien even called out his director, saying he was “a psychopath with a death wish.” I particularly love the climax, where the boat is sinking and the last survivors of the Claridon fight their way along the swamped deck as water rushes over the side and O’Brien basically says “screw that” and abandons the scene early. Woody Strode fares better, with a far meatier role than he’s usually saddled with. (He got it when Sidney Poitier turned it down.) The scene where he recoils from Laurie’s assisted suicide request is a thing of beauty. George Sanders actually reins it in a bit as the doomed, if ’n’ buts captain, destined to go down with the ship. Luckily, he was blessed with a very competent crew, who keeps things well-organized and moving properly enough they manage to get all the other passengers off without any additional casualties.

Robert Stack was another late sub for Stuart Whitman. Solid as always, the actor also called out Stone in his autobiography, saying he was lucky to have survived the production. I’m telling ya, the scenes which showcased his efforts to save young Tammy Marihugh, sans stunt performers from what I could see, from her precarious predicament after the initial explosion is just incredible -- and perhaps a little foolhardy and bordering on child endangerment charges. And credit to Marihugh, too, for giving one of the best performances by a child actor that I’ve ever had the pleasure to endure.

And yet despite her essentially thankless role, spending nearly the entire production trapped under the rubble, it is Dorothy Malone who wins the movie with her fraught performance. Her desperate pleas for release, her anguish, her fear, her pain, as her life expectancy ticks away, and later, as the water engulfs her, are mesmerizing. And, oh, holy crap, that look on her face when all those efforts to free her reach fruition and Cliff pulls, and she comes loose, her eyes snap wide, and Laurie realizes she is finally free (a relief the actress probably felt on the set, too, I’m sure) -- it doesn’t get much more real than that, kids, and had me clapping and cheering.

Obviously, I like this film a whole lot but I do have two major problems with it. One, is the constantly intrusive narration of Joe Marston, who also played Ragland, one of the officers whose initial pleas for ‘erring on the side of caution’ fell on deaf ears. It kept popping up at the wrong time, breaking the film’s rhythm, and spent most of the time belaboring the obvious, stating what was exactly happening on screen, making it even more redundant. The second hiccup is at some point, surely, a second solution to Laurie’s predicament should’ve been broached when the blowtorch proved unattainable. And that option, obviously, was an amputation. Surely the ship’s doctor and medical suite would’ve had the equipment and know-how to handle such a crisis, and would prove more accessible than the flooded machine shop. (The film mentions that several other doctors are on board, helping the injured.) And if it came down to drowning or losing a leg (or legs), I’d chose not drowning. Granted, we only really see Laurie from the shoulder blades up once she’s trapped so this might not have been as practical as I think.

Beyond that, I cannot stress enough how enjoyable The Last Voyage is, and how effectively Stone slathers on the tension as situations are aggravated further and things become more hopeless with each spiraling minute and every inch of rising water. You don’t want any of these people to drown, not even Adams. And the hands-on, no-nonsense, no-filler approach of the Stones was a refreshing change of pace that had me riveted until the very end and completely exhausted when it was over.

The Last Voyage (1960) Andrew L. Stone Productions :: MGM / P: Andrew L. Stone, Virginia L. Stone / D: Andrew L. Stone / W: Andrew L. Stone / C: Hal Mohr / E: Virginia L. Stone / M: Andrew L. Stone, Virginia L. Stone, Rudy Schrager / S: Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, George Sanders, Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode, Tammy Marihugh


Unknown said...

When I last saw our esteemed host (about seven hours ago at the local theater) this movie's title didn't register with me, but not only have I seen it I heartily recommend it. I always thought the scene where Stack saves his daughter looked dangerous....I wonder how they did that? Now I know. The director was psychotic. My second favorite performance by Dorothy Malone. only eclipsed by a truly great overlooked Western......Warlock.

W.B. Kelso said...

Ms. Malone won me over completely with her cameo in THE BIG SLEEP. m'rowr. But I think the first thing I ever saw her in was BEACH PARTY and she was smokin' in that, too. Hope you enjoyed your movie, loved ours. I got a George Kennedy tribute due this weekend, and then I will be addressing how and why The Cult Movie Project kind of went up in smoke and how I will proceed with it from there. Good to see ya. CIVIL WAR is coming. Team Cap %100.


Anonymous said...

I think I'm remembering right that a number of extras were Marines (not necessarily US, possibly Royal or Australian), and that to most of them balked at the risks until one of the Stones essentially said "What are ya, chicken?" to one of them; one took up the challenge, and the rest didn't want to seem less than the first, so there's your exploding dining room scene saved.

...but we are left to consider how risky something must be that Marines need to be goaded into giving it a try. Brrr. It's a hell of a film, all right.

W.B. Kelso said...

I did recall that tale, and wrote it down to explore further, looking for a source, which, apparently got lost somewheres, and then forgotten. Thanks for filling in that blank.

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