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The flashy newspaper ads were irresistible. Almost like a cartoon panel, we see the nose of a submarine pointing directly at a modern ocean liner. The movie's title announces the theme of 20th century piracy, a heist caper played out on the high seas. Assault on a Queen is an escapist adventure based on an idea that at the time was considered pure fantasy: the hijacking of ships and planes was not yet a common occurrence.
Paramount's summer attraction for 1966 carries an interesting set of credits, with star Frank Sinatra performing in a script by the respected Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame. The source novel is by Jack Finney, the interesting author of the book source for Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Just the same, much of the final movie seems to be assembled from familiar thriller ingredients.
Struggling fishing boat operator Mark Brittain (Sinatra) is concerned that his boat will be repossessed, which would lower Mark and his faithful first mate Linc Langley (Errol John) to outright bum status. A reprieve comes with a job to dive just outside the harbor for lost Spanish treasure. Flaky opportunist Vic Rossiter (Anthony Franciosa) is nominally in charge of the expedition, with the financial backing of his Neopolitan girlfriend Rosa Lucchesi (Virna Lisi). The third treasure hunter is Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kelljin), a German with a shady past. No treasure is found but they do encounter a sunken German submarine that has remained airtight for over twenty years. Eric immediately formulates a fantastic plan to raise the sub and make her seaworthy. Naval engineer Tony Moreno (Richard Conte) joins the team. When the sub is ready, the adventurers set out to intercept Cunard's passenger liner Queen Mary. Object: jack the ship by bluffing a torpedo strike, and make off with the contents of the purser's safe. Mark has gone along with the entire plan partly to protect Rosa, but he doesn't realize that the venal Rossiter and ex-Kriegsmarine officer Lauffnauer have armed the sub with live torpedoes.
Assault on a Queen has what is commonly called an unbreakable story. All that audiences need to know is that they're going to see Frank Sinatra involved in some wild piracy action on the high seas, and interest will be maintained. But Rod Serling's script seemingly tries very hard to spoil the magic. This screen story doesn't have plot holes, it IS a plot hole. Sinatra's Mark Brittain is a lazy rewrite of Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, complete with mortgaged fishing boat and an alcoholic sidekick as a best pal. The notion of raising the sub and refitting her as a fighting vessel is, to be kind, unrealistic. Assuming that all the ship's watertight compartments would have stayed sealed for so long, a little thing like corrosion would have ruined every exposed surface and moving part on the ship. Why do you suppose seagoing vessels need to be cleaned and repainted every so often? It would take a major shipyard operation to rejuvenate the boat, if it were even possible. The movie pays little attention to commonsense details. It is firmly established that Sinatra must wear a bulky diving suit to descend to the ocean bottom where the sub is found. On his next dive he nonchalantly uses an ordinary aqualung.
The capably performed characters are likeable enough, even if they fall into neat pigeonholes: alienated ex-sailor, Italian adventuress, nervy treasure hunter, fanatic German, philosophical black sidekick. But Serling's script glosses over what should be important dramatic decisions. Mark Brittain says it's crazy to try to raise the sub, and then risks his life to make the attempt. After ranting about the absurdity of using a sub as a pirate ship, Mark is suddenly a full partner in the conspiracy, without ever having made the decision. It's as if the scenes covering these choices were just dropped from the show, because they slowed up the action. Could producer Sinatra have decided that these moments were superfluous?
Unless I'm missing something, the hijack idea is silly as well. Why go to all the trouble of renovating an entire ship to attack the ocean liner? You're going to have to ditch the craft after the hold-up anyway. Fixing the sub is like an absurd exaggeration of the tanker truck that the thieves buy for use in a robbery in Raoul Walsh's White Heat. Gangster Jimmy Cagney thinks the preparation is overkill: "So you buy a tanker truck and maybe get away with some money. What do you do next, buy two more tanker trucks?"
Without doing any research, the thieves simply assume that the Queen Mary's safes will contain millions of dollars in loot. Assuming that there is a fortune to be stolen, the submarine still seems unnecessary. Why don't the pirates just board the ship as passengers, set off a harmless "warning" explosion somewhere, and then tell the captain that anonymous confederates will detonate more hidden bombs unless you get the loot. For your getaway you can use ordinary speedboats. Frankly, attempting to escape in that sub isn't advisable. The Coast Guard and any naval vessels in the vicinity would LOVE the assignment to blow you to bits, just for the combat practice. Even in 1966, I'm sure some sort of jet would be violating your propeller shaft with an anti-sub missile within two hours, max.
When Frank Sinatra found a script that impressed him (The Manchurian Candidate) or when he got caught up in an exciting thriller (Von Ryan's Express) he could turn in a terrific performance. But he could also be maddeningly uninvolved in his movies, and demand that their shooting schedules and locations to be arranged for his convenience. Assault on a Queen takes place at a Florida marina, in a secret cove, on the high seas and on the Queen Mary, but it looks as if Sinatra never left a Hollywood soundstage. His daytime location scenes use rear projection and his night exteriors are almost always interior sets. This means that Sinatra entertain a friend in his studio dressing room during shooting downtime, or retire to a nearby bar if the mood seized him. Filming in the controlled studio space meant fewer delays, no crowd control issues and a fast shoot all around. It's efficient, but the film suffers. We hardly believe we're out in the ocean, as the sea is a studio tank. Painted backdrops are used on board the ocean liner. The lack of exciting angles puts a damper on the excitement of the final confrontation, most of which intercuts tight shots and second-unit footage. The director, a veteran Sinatra collaborator Jack Donahue, has little choice but to assemble the film with the most basic visual building blocks.
Given the lack of urgency in the Mark Brittain character, we're impressed by the charm Sinatra exudes on screen. We like this guy, and he carries the movie against all odds. Virna Lisi's motivation isn't well explained, and her background remains hazy. At one time headed for top stardom, Anthony Franciosa plays an annoying character without much in the way of finesse. The dependable Richard Conte is the most believable human in the picture; he now also seems the best thing in the Rat Pack movie Ocean's 11. Alf Kelljin brings a modicum of sensitivity to his role -- even when his mad Eric runs amuck!
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Assault on a Queen (also available on standard DVD) is a handsome and colorful enhanced transfer of this Panavision popcorn attraction. Ace cinematographer William H. Daniels also served as an associate producer on the show. Daniels had been shooting many of Sinatra's quality pictures since 1958's Some Came Running. The jazzy music score is by Duke Ellington.
Olive Films recently stepped up production, especially for its Blu-ray product. I've seen most of their output and the quality is consistently high. Paramount has been one of the most stingy of the majors when it comes to library Blu-rays, but thanks to Olive we're seeing some really exciting titles announced every few weeks. The latest news is that the company will be putting out Blu-rays (and DVDs) of the rare Paramount Sci-Fi titles The Space Children and Project X, and upgrading their The Colossus of New York disc to HD as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Assault on a Queen Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.