With Frank Sinatra as the lead, Rod Serling writing and Duke Ellington providing the music, it's hard to imagine sixties heist film Assault on a Queen being anything less than superfab cool. It's pretty cool, to be sure, but not quite as boffo as one could have hoped.
Sinatra plays Mark Brittain, a retired American naval officer living in the Bahamas who runs a chartered fishing boat with his best friend, Lincoln (Errol John). When Mark and Lincoln are first approached by Vic Rossiter and Rosa Lucchesi (Anthony Franciosa and Virna Lisi) to help them look for sunken treasure, they are less than enthusiastic. However, the impending repossession of their boat convinces them to reconsider. Mark dons the diving gear and plunges into the ocean to find lost ships stuffed with gold. He doesn't find those ships, instead he finds a German submarine from World War II, apparently still water tight.
This gives Vic and Rosa's partner Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kjellin) the idea to refurbish the sub and "play pirates". And he's not just interested in knocking over fat businessmen in yachts; he wants to hold up the Queen Mary at sea. Strangely, and this is one of the big weaknesses of the film, his cohorts don't just laugh at him and proceed with plans to sell the sub to a museum. While there is a bit of token resistance, the quick acquiescence of everyone is never adequately addressed in the screenplay. Indeed the line "It's so nutty it could work" is actually spoken at one point. That alone should result in some penalty points for Mr. Serling. Regardless, they start their lengthy preparations and eventually go forward with their plan.
While Assault on a Queen superficially resembles a heist film, in many ways it is not. Much more time is spent on repairing the sub than is spent planning, or even discussing, the heist itself. The drama emerges mostly from the love triangle between Rosa, Vic and Mark. When the film begins, Rosa and Vic are an item, but she soon begins to have feelings for Mark, but can't seem to choose between them. This becomes more complicated once the sub is repaired and they are on their way, with the tension growing every moment they come closer to their rendezvous with the Queen Mary. The characters are moderately well drawn, but somewhat simple in the construction and motivation. Eric is the driven and heartless German ex-soldier. Mark is the cynical American. Vic is the greedy fool who wants to be a playboy, whose obsession with shiny jewelry will inevitably be his undoing. These are more types than characters, though given quite a bit of life by the performers inhabiting the roles.
Regardless of all that, Assault on a Queen certainly has some thrilling moments, and since this is essentially a film that intends to provide thrills, and not necessarily comment on the human condition, this is perhaps a better yardstick by which to measure it. The last twenty minutes or so, those involving the heist itself, are very intense. Interpersonal tensions that had lain dormant flare up under the pressure of events, and here at least we see plot developments flow organically out of the motivations, fears and resentments of the characters themselves. Add into the mix a superabundance of greed and anger, and a Coast Guard cutter that arrives at precisely the wrong time, and things threaten to boil over.
Assault on a Queen is by no means a perfect thriller, or heist movie. It's not even one of Sinatra's best from the era. But it is competently produced, with great production values, solid performances and a fair sprinkling of witty dialogue and exciting turns. Chances are you'll enjoy it, especially if you hold some nostalgic memories of this kind of film from this time period. Recommended.