Assault on a Queen is probably one of those fondly remembered films that when seen again, years later, reveals a very different and very flawed production – a classic great idea done incredibly wrong through a series of bad creative decisions.
Jack Finney’s novel may have yielded more tension and scope – some of which is resident in the film’s finale and character conflicts – but it’s obvious Rod Serling’s script was rewritten to suit the dialogue style preferred by star / executive producer Frank Sinatra. The elliptical moral arguments, tightness of the script, and character designs have the polish typical of Serling, who cut his teeth writing Emmy-winning teleplays and episodes of The Twilight Zone, but everyone talks like members of Sinatra’s tough-guy clan, from the men to the lone female character. One suspects the cast was arranged like a Howard Hawks actioner (a tough women surrounded by wise-cracking, testosterone men), but under the direction of ex-dancer / TV director Jack Donohue, much of the film feels extraordinarily workmanlike, and it takes way too long to get to the actual heist.
The basic premise is fantastical and alluring and preposterous: a group of ex-soldiers from U.S. and German WWII ranks restore a previously submerged Nazi U-boat to working order and plot to rob the Queen Mary’s money and gold reserves. The elemental problems with the film, however, are profound: Rosa Lucchesi’s reasons for switching from financing underwater treasure hunting to plain robbery is never reasonably explained; the restoration of the submarine to near-perfect working order and pristine cosmetic condition is absurd; and either no money was allotted for a proper special effects team, or the production got what seemed like a sweet deal with the credited U.S. Navy unit used for some of the effects.
There’s never any doubt the models are in a big, clean swimming pool, and either because Sinatra was lazy or too tired for location filming, there are no money shots. The production had use of the Queen Mary inasmuch as close-ups of her sides and upper deck, but there are few shots to reveal her scope, majesty, or have the luxury liner in the same shot as the U-boat. The optical effects that attempt such continuity are wobbly, and the explosive finale, in which a U.S. Coast Guard cutter rams the sub, consists of a practical extension of the sub’s escape hatch with fire effects and no model work; the big finale is literally a one-shot deal done in an overlit studio!
Many of the shots where Sinatra is on a boat or a nighttime beach scene were filmed in a big overlit studio with a poor rear projection screen, and the sound mix of the interior boat scenes has echo from the expansive studio, and lacks continuity when intercut with actual location footage.
Sinatra’s stunt double doesn’t resemble him, and there are odd moments where Sinatra should’ve been among the other actors, such as when the character prep the sub for seaworthiness; in the case of the latter, perhaps because of a jazz concert date or due to the simultaneous filming of another movie (likely Cast a Giant Shadow), the director cuts to a static shot of an open hatch inside the submarine and overdubs a post-sync audio snippet of Sinatra saying “Okay!” to cover the actor’s disappearance. (Every other actor is seen in the sub, and it’s suspicious when the star isn’t among the vignettes.)
Perhaps Donohue was chosen by Sinatra to direct because he could be manipulated by the star into making ‘other’ directorial choices, but either Donohue has little grasp of crafting an action film, or he wasn’t given enough time to get all his shots to create the kind of kinetic actions sequences Sinatra had been involved with in prior films helmed by more experienced directors.
The final nail in the film’s water-logged coffin is Duke Ellington’s score, which is completely wrong. Nathan Van Cleave is credited with additional orchestrations, and one suspects he layered in some strings for the early diving scenes where Sinatra discovers the submerged U-boat, and ghost-wrote a few cues in the finale. With rare exceptions, Ellington’s music doesn’t suit any scene’s dramatic needs; one can sense what he’s trying to evoke, but the big band music, written in a late fifties style, ruins already workmanlike scenes and montages, and most likely Sinatra signed off of the finished film because he was making almost two films a year between 1955-1968.
Sporting a great main title sequence, Assault is an interesting curio in the C.V. of both Sinatra and Serling, but it’s no classic, and is a film ripe for a remake, given its problems glare like harsh neon lights. Sinatra plays a standard, tired tough guy persona (Mark Brittain feels like a variation of Ryan in Von Ryan’s Express), but the rest of the cast manage to transcend their limited roles. Anthony Franciosa is great as the grinning, testosterone-fueled munitions man, Alf Kjellin adds civility and desperation to ex-U-boat captain Eric Lauffnauer, Richard Conte is confidently cynical as machinist Tony Moreno, and Errol John (Guns at Batasi [M]) is strong as Brittain’s right-hand man. As for Virna Lisi, she’s clearly cast for eye candy and nothing else (but what eye candy).
Olive Film’s transfer is very clean, and this title was released on DVD and Blu-ray in tandem with Come Blow Your Horn [M] (1963).
Film adaptations of Jack Finney’s novels include 5 Against the House (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), House of Numbers (1957), Good Neighbor Sam (1964), Assault on a Queen (1966), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Maxie (1985), Body Snatchers (1993), and The Invasion (2007).
Rod Serling’s sixties screenplay film credits include The Yellow Canary (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Assault on a Queen (1966), and Planet of the Apes (1968).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan