The Cassandra Crossing (1976) **


Usually dismissed as just another empty-headed all-star disaster movie, and an all-too typical example of Lew Grade's international co-productions, this is actually an unusual and fascinating hybrid of the disaster and conspiracy sub-genres, with a genuinely effective atmosphere of doom and claustrophobia.

The plot is different from the average disaster movie in that, rather than building to a mid-way disaster and then devoting the second half to the characters' attempts at survival, it builds tensely and inexorably to a climactic disaster, which as well as well-designed also comes as a considerable shock, since our heroes have spent the entire film trying to avoid it.
It's weakest where it most adheres to the standard disaster template: massive stars cast for marquee value rather than suitability (if you think Richard Harris and Sophia Loren make for an unlikely screen couple, wait till you see Ava Gardner and Martin Sheen), even bigger stars shoehorned into nothing-much roles for a day's work (Burt Lancaster gets the 'back at the control room' part, looking like he got out of bed in the middle of the night to shoot his scenes), an array of irrelevant subplots included solely to give the stars something to do beyond running up and down the train, and a gratuitous song from conveniently musical passengers. All this plus O.J. Simpson as a narcotics cop disguised as a vicar.

But there the clichés end and the surprises begin, not least in the fact that Lancaster's character is a duplicitous scoundrel, who calmly engineers the train's destruction and, walking dejectedly away in a somewhat Kafkaesque final scene, ends up subject to the same official suspicion and surveillance with which he has threatened everyone else.