The Poseidon Adventure

Gene Hackman and the cast of The Poseidon Adventure


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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Poseidon Adventure – at Amazon





Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter


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



6 April


Petrarch first sees Laura, 1327

On this day in 1327, one of the most celebrated romantic sightings in literature happened, when Francesco Petrarca, the scholar, poet and former priest often credited with starting the Renaissance, first caught sight of a young woman called Laura (possibly Laura de Noves) in church. He was immediately smitten.

Laura was married and rebuffed his advances. So he poured his feelings into poetry, resulting in a book of 366 poems which later were called Il Canzoniere (Song Book).

It is one of the most sustained works on unrequited love in the literary canon and became highly influential on the development of literature in Europe and beyond. Most of the poems Petrarch wrote were sonnets, a form of 14 lines generally in iambic pentameter which he didn’t invent but did perfect – so-called Petrarchan sonnets (like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways”) consist of an initial set of eight lines (the “problem”) followed by a set of six (the “solution”).




Brief Encounter (1945, dir: David Lean)

Like Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love, Brief Encounter hums with repressed longing. It tells the story of a married woman and a doctor who accidentally meet at a railway station and are immediately plunged into a torrent of emotion neither ever suspected was there.

It might seem counter-intuitive but it’s all the more effective for being in black and white, with dialogue spoken through stiff upper lips by people armoured against the cold in gabardine, wool, hats and gloves. Neither Celia Johnson nor Trevor Howard, its stars, has matinee idol looks. A railway station, lots of clothes, weird accents, boring middle-aged fully clothed people – the whole thing, essentially, is a how-not-to guide on romantic film-making.

And yet here it is, a regular on “best of” lists of romances. Partly it is because the terrible longing is so beautifully expressed through tiny emotional grimaces on the actors’ faces, partly because (like another classic of renunciation, Casablanca) it is an entirely honest attempt by film-makers in wartime to represent the way real people – people caught up in a life-and-death conflict – deal with appalling events. They’re stoic, in other words.

In an echo of that sacrifice, Johnson and Howard cannot have what they most dearly want either. They put individual desire to one side in favour of the greater good. And they deal with this by trying to pretend they didn’t want whatever it was that much after all – until the dam breaks.

Noel Coward’s original one-act play, Still Life, has been fleshed out a bit by writer Ronald Neame, while director David Lean gives us the stark black and white visuals (a year before Oliver Twist) which do so much with so little, flashes of light in the darkness being a recurring visual motif – no need to explain what that means.

The music is Concerto No 2 by Rachmaninoff, the “last of the romantics” and a more suitably swirling, surging piece of music it’s hard to imagine. In fact it’s so right that you can’t use Rach 2 any more except as a cliché of torrid romance – how many films’ scores have that much longevity?



Why Watch?


  • Beautiful, urgent performances by Howard and Johnson
  • A real eye on another time
  • David Lean’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography
  • Rach 2 – absurd, heroic, poignant


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Brief Encounter – at Amazon

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