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"It's a pity that this film's release couldn't have been held up four months, to follow the hilarious disaster spoof Airplane! ... it's almost as funny, and could have played as a comedy."
When Time Ran Out ... is the rock-bottom title in the big-studio disaster cycle, the 70s phenomenon dominated by producer-director Irwin Allen. Allen struck gold with the overblown, star-laden The Poseidon Adventure, a maritime jeopardy tale with an appealing gimmick. Three years later his The Towering Inferno raked in the cash while seemingly proving that the American audience had completely lost its sense of good taste or judgment (something our Detroit car makers already knew). An absurd soap opera in a ridiculous San Francisco high rise results in a massive fire and a desperate rescue effort. The 10-cent plot is kept alive by killing off stars and supporting players every few minutes or so; nothing in the fire scenes or the rescues makes the slightest bit of sense. Even big movie stars have cash-flow issues, which must have been the motivation for players Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to get involved.
Inferno was a huge hit, and Allen made plans for a sequel that was never to be. Disaster pictures became a joke, even as studios continued to crank them out; Universal's Airport series seemed to be a test of how insipid real movies could become before the audience woke up and rejected them. None of Allen's stars would approve a script, forcing him to concoct a different story about a volcano threatening luxury hotel guests on a tropical island. Ace writers Stirling Silliphant and Carl Foreman's name is on the awful, awful script; it's difficult to believe that they really wrote it. For instance, the big volcano eruption just happens to interrupt the first kiss between the film's glamorous lovers!
We're told that practically the film's entire name cast took on the show to finish off old contractual obligations. When Time Ran Out ... The show is more of a "deal" than a "movie", one of those shows nobody wants to make, but that gets made anyway.
Paul Newman and William Holden play essentially the same parts as they did in The Towering Inferno. Newman is Hank Anderson, an oil driller concerned for the safety of the island and its vacationers. But Holden's hotel magnate Shelby Gilmore has been swayed by Anderson's self-serving partner Bob Spangler (James Franciscus) into thinking that the volcano poses no threat. Gilmore's girl friend Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset) wants to re-start her torrid romance with Hank, while Bob callously plans to ditch his wife Nikki, Gilmore's daughter (Veronica Hamel of Hill Street Blues) and run off with hotel employee Iolani (Barbara Carrera), who breaks off her engagement to fellow hotel clerk Brian (Edward Albert). Among the guests are Red Buttons (cast in every movie of this kind, it's a Hollywood law) as an embezzler and Ernest Borgnine as the New York cop on his tail. Valentina Cortese and Burgess Meredith are a happy pair of retired circus aerialists. "Special Guest Volcano Victims" include Alex Karras, John Considine, Sheila Matthews and Pat Morita.
Few of Irwin Allen's films are well remembered. Even the expensive ones look cheap, especially in the special effects department, and the illogic and bad science in his scripts just plain insult the intelligence. The budget of When Time Ran Out ... was reportedly slashed several times, forcing Allen to make do with visual effects that wouldn't have passed muster in the 1940s. The miniatures, the mattes, the pyrotechnic effects are pitifully poor. But that doesn't excuse the general scripting idiocy. James Franciscus's geo observation lab is perched right at the unstable edge of the volcano's caldera, where it will clearly be destroyed by any eruption it wants to study. Paul Newman's men are drilling for oil on a volcanic island, the last place one would expect oil deposits to form. The volcanic eruption creates a tsunami hundreds of feet tall -- that rolls in toward the island instead of away from it. And the volcano's main threat comes in the form of large lava bombs that it sends rocketing out of its crater, to land miles away. This particular volcano doesn't like William Holden's hotel, for it seems to lob most of the fireballs directly at it. Maybe the volcano has an artillery spotter: "You're falling short ... elevate three degrees and one degree to the right!"
With his typical infantile approach to adventure jeopardy, Irwin Allen stacks one unlikely, silly event after another. James Franciscus hides evidence that the volcano could momentarily blow the island sky high, just so he can cash in his chips and escape the financial clutches of his father-in-law. He's patterned after Inferno's despicable Richard Chamberlain character, of course. Even Newman, distracted by the presence of the gorgeous Ms. Bisset, decides that evacuating his drilling team is no longer a priority, even when the "volcano gauges" indicate that the "pressure is through the roof." You'd think that Franciscus and his associates had installed a giant oven thermometer down in the volcano's fire pit.
In many disaster and science fiction-jeopardy films, people and crowds often become hysterical or act against their own best interest. Irwin Allen has no real drama to play and instead makes his show a process of character elimination. People in crowds act like absolute idiots. At the first volcano rumble, a group of stuntmen -- oops, pardon -- hotel guests -- steal Newman's helicopter (I can pilot one, can't you?) and crash it in a gaudy fireball. The lesson of that spectacle is lost on the other guests, who despite the volcano bombs raining on the hotel, refuse to consider Paul Newman's logical plan to repair to safer turf. Egged on by Franciscus, the guests practically riot against Newman, as if he's an alarmist coward for wanting to survive. Why Franciscus wants to stay is also not clear; he's just tired of being told what to do by Newman and Holden!
Irwin makes sure that his sitting ducks, uh, characters don't die choking from escaped gas and smoke, as have most victims of historical volcanic disasters ... one could make a heck of a chilling story out of the Mt. Pelée, Martinique eruption of 1902. An idiotic subplot has Newman's drilling crew enjoying themselves at a brothel, where we all know the main entertainment is ... cockfighting! (The kind with roosters.) They're all wiped out by a monster tsunami wave. Remember, when you see a giant tidal wave coming, load the kids in the car and leave right away. Don't stop to chase chickens!
No, producer Allen has a preferred method of killing off surplus cast members. Victim after victim is dropped into a fiery lava flow, preferably James Mason style, from a great height. In a helicopter rescue mission, Newman feels compelled to fly over the boiling caldera: "Swim? The fall will kill ya!" Naturally, the Polynesian natives provide logical early casualties -- and they leave behind adorable orphans for the handsome American stars to pose with, protectively. Possibly because of the budget-chops, the movie's Big, Big set piece is the unimpressive crossing of a feeble wooden bridge over ... a river of lava. Burgess Meredith's skill on the tightrope comes in handy in carrying one of those orphans to safety. Meanwhile, those stinky-poo jerks back at the hotel soon regret their obstinacy, as a lava bomb the size of a Motel 6 obliterates them in one unconvincing long shot. Several supporting actors don't even get to die on camera!
When Time Ran Out ... came from a book called The Day the World Ended, but that title had already been used for an old Roger Corman science fiction film. The cheapness shows throughout. Many 'tropical' scenes are filmed in the dust-dry hill of Southern California. One real reason that most of the cast refuses to leave the hotel is that the production couldn't pay to take them to location -- Franciscus and other actors are only seen in studio interiors!
Weirdly, Allen's film was nominated for best costume design, although it has no memorable costumes to speak of. I feel sorry for the special effects people, who were doomed to be criticized for their work; no awards category exists for "effects done for next to no money whatsoever". Just the same, When the Budget Ran Out ... reminds us of terrible illusions in cheap movies when we were growing up, and felt "gypped".
We also need to be generous with the film's cast, which soldiers on against all odds. Paul Newman and Jacqueline Bisset make an attractive couple that would surely ignite sparks in a different context. Most everybody else is working in an Airplane! rut of straightjacket genre stereotypes, even poor William Holden, who in his later career was one of the talents most wasted by Hollywood. You get what you pay for with the likes of Red Buttons, and poor Ernest Borgnine stumbles through half of his role with a bandage over his eyes. Valentina Cortese and Burgess Meredith are obvious victims of screenwriter sadism from the get-go ... we know that they'll have a tearful farewell of one kind or another.
Some viewers remember a 143-minute version of When Time Ran Out ... with longer scenes, including a cockfight in the brothel. As far as I've been able to determine, this longer cut was assembled for network TV showings. It must have seemed to run &%^#% forever.
Warners' DVD of When Time Ran Out ... is a flawless transfer of elements in excellent shape (oh, the irony), that shows up every unconvincing special effect for exactly what it is. The release is part of a Paul Newman Film Series that includes The Helen Morgan Story, Rachel Rachel, The Silver Chalice and The Outrage. For all its idiocy, the film is far more enjoyable than those overly serious 1990s volcano-jeopardy movies. You remember those, the ones where people can run across molten lava as if hopping between rocks in a mountain stream.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When Time Ran Out ... rates:
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