The Poseidon Adventure

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

23 April

Ronald Neame born, 1911

On this day in 1911, a remarkable figure in cinema was born. Ronald Elwin Neame lived until 2010 and in his time was a cinematographer, a producer, writer and director. There are probably plenty of people who could line up a similar list of credits. But Neame was a cinematographer on Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, a producer of Oliver Lean’s Oliver Twist, the writer of Lean’s Great Expectations and the director of The Poseidon Adventure, each one of them an important film, for different reasons. He also directed Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing and won an Oscar for Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Having been born to a photographer and an actress, Neame had got an early leg-up in the movie business thanks to his mother’s contacts – she got him a job as a messenger boy at Elstree Studios. From there he rose on his own merits, working for Hitchcock on Blackmail as a camera assistant and then spending the 1930s honing his skill before making the unusual (at the time) slide sideways into producing as well as directing. He was a success at everything he did, proudest of the 1960 army drama Tunes of Glory, but always claimed that The Poseidon Adventure was his favourite film, because it made him a lot of money. He lived until he was 99 and put his longevity down to “two large vodkas at lunchtime and three large scotches in the evening”.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972, dir: Ronald Neame)

A huge old liner is crossing the ocean on New Year’s Eve. On board is a motley collection of idiosyncratic characters. And way below them are two tectonic plates, about to suddenly slip and cause a tsunami which will flip the ship over. Some people are going to live; some are going to die. Who exactly is going to survive is what the film is all about.

The Poseidon Adventure is a disaster movie, perhaps it is the disaster movie. Certainly there had been Airport two years earlier, which had a chunky disaster element and featured big name actors in a soapy drama with interlocking plots. But in The Poseidon Adventure the formula was perfected. The film is all about the disaster and it is all about the efforts to survive it. And it’s all about fading Hollywood glamour too. If you’re in the mood for meta-analysis – big ageing ship slightly past its glory years being threatened by forces unquantifiable at the end of an old year – it’s being offered on a slightly tarnished salver. If you’re not then there’s the cast, which consists of onetime stars, character faces who could never open a film, a few disposables, plus the magic ingredient – a rising talent. Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens, Leslie Nielsen and Roddy McDowall are the recognisables, Gene Hackman the emerging star who is going to lead them all to safety. Except they’re not all going to make it, not even with one of the few action-hero priests of cinema cajoling them. Even at this extreme distance from the making of the film it feels churlish to reveal which big name was going to croak before the end. But the Poseidon Adventure set the trend for that too – the “oh no, not Fred Astaire” moment when a much loved star drowns/fries/dissolves/whatever.

Why Watch?

  • Hackman, one year after The French Connection, two years before The Conversation
  • The archetypal disaster movie
  • It’s still a good, tense ride
  • A guilty pleasure

The Poseidon Adventure – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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