Rollercoaster (1977) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

After the hugely successful ‘Sensurround’ processed Earthquake (1974) and with The Hindenburg (1975) and Two Minute Warning (1976) already in various stages of completion, Universal Studios decided to further exploit the burgeoning disaster genre by quickly packaging another high concept movie using elements from all three of these titles, combining a great American pastime and their patented sound system for a story of a bomber targeting fairground attractions. The result was Rollercoaster, a taut little thriller masquerading as a disaster movie with a decent story and cast (and a turn by rock ‘n roll band ‘Sparks’). But does it deserve to be better known? Let’s see …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Now, Universal plunges you into a mystery at the speed of sound!” – original trailer

George Segal is the main star of the film and gives one of his typically acerbic and wryly comic performances, perpetually unimpressed by the chaos around him while everyone else, including Richard Widmark as the hard as nails FBI man and Harry Guardino as the local police chief, are continually outwitted by Timothy Bottoms’ wily and cold-blooded extortionist. Henry Fonda also turns up in a guest role as Segal’s unpleasant boss while the ravishing Susan Strasberg gets the rather thankless role of Segal’s love interest. And in very early performances there are also parts for a young Helen Hunt (as Segal’s daughter), Craig Wasson and Steve Guttenberg too. Of course none of this matters one jot because the main attraction is the hardware in the shape of rides from several theme parks including Magic Mountain in Valencia, which I’ve ridden on, and several in Virginia I have not – all backed by the ‘rumblerama’ of ‘Sensurround’, Universal’s short-lived novelty sound system that was virtually guaranteed to make your fillings fall out.

This project was the baby of producer Jennings Lang, a colourful former agent who hit the headlines in 1951 when producer Walter Wanger shot him in the crotch, apparently in the belief that he was having an affair with his wife, actress Joan Bennett. Lang recovered (and had three children) and became one of uber-agent Lew Wasserman’s protegés at MCA – when they bought-up Universal Studios, he initially headed their TV division and worked closely with the team of writer-producers Richard Levinson and William Link developing several feature-length series and ‘movies of the week’. In their 1981 autobiography, Stay Tuned, they remembered him fondly

“A complex and forceful man, with a gift for invective unrivaled in an industry where it is the coin of everyday conversation, Lang was known as one of the best salesmen in the business.”

When Lang was ‘kicked upstairs’ to produce feature films, he had to back-to-back hits with the aforementioned Earthquake and Airport 75 (1974), the latter largely produced with a crew sourced from the TV division. Developed in-house with Tommy Cook, Lang eventually turned to his old associates Levinson and Link, still under contract at Universal, to make Rollercoaster with director James Goldstone, another experienced TV director who had just directed Langs’ Swashbuckler (1976) – and if this sounds like I’m getting ready to say the finished film feels a bit like a superannuated TV-movie, well, it does and I am!

In the film Segal plays Harry Calder, whose profession may be a screen first for a leading man: a fairground safety inspector. In the event, if that seems a little on the unsexy side, what he really plays is an investigator, one with a vested interest when a roller coaster ride he recently inspected and passed none the less goes horribly wrong in the opening section, killing many people. This is actually the most spectacular sequence in the film, and serves as a dramatic curtain-raiser, but also points to the limitations of the story. Calder eventually realises, when there are two accidents in one week, that this is not bad luck but sabotage. But the owners of the theme parks need convincing – but if the film keeps showing one disaster after another. the film will not only be repetitive but ultimately become incredibly morbid too – plus the heroes would come across as increasingly ineffectual. So very sensibly, when the bomber once again proves his ruthlessness and initiates his million dollar blackmail scheme, this is done only by inference, only showing us the aftermath of an accident.

For the most part though the film instead concentrates on a number of nifty sequences in which we see Calder figure out the villain’s plan and get a few moves ahead of him, quickly turning the film away from disaster and into a more straightforward manhunt story. This again dramatically does create structural problems as the villain and hero spend almost the entire film communicating only by phone or walkie-talkie – they only meet in person in a brief and perfunctory climax. Unsurprisingly, on this basis it is quite hard to make that seem very dynamic over a two-hour running time (yes, it is a little over-long too). There is however a terrific extended sequence in which Calder is meant to somehow drop off the suitcase with the million dollar ransom while under observation from half the FBI and the bomber, who is always one step ahead – which he then proves by planting the bomb in the walkie-talkie Calder is having to use to get his introductions for the drop.  This is the major sequence of this kind in the film and works well but otherwise the movie does find it hard to keep ringing the changes on the same basic premise, though this is not necessarily impossible. The most obvious comparison to be made, with a film that largely got it right, would be the 90s bomber thriller Speed, which was usually billed as ‘Die Hard on a bus’ – however, that only takes up the central section. The opening part in fact taken up with an elaborate ‘Die Hard on an elevator’ sequence; and then the movie finishes with an even bigger ‘Die Hard on the subway’ climax. Rollercoaster however is largely a one-trick pony, playing like ‘Die Hard on a merry-go-round’, endlessly turning, not really going anywhere fast.

It doesn’t help that while the film is very well shot, director Goldstone handles all the suspense sequences in a totally predictable fashion, with one major exception: he does create one really superb shot at the halfway mark, when we seem to be experiencing another point-of-view shot on the rollercoaster (there are lots, and lots in the film) when suddenly the camera seem to go off the rails and dip – for an awful moment we really feel like we will plummet and crash, but then the camera swerves all the way round and we watch as the car continues on it ride – it’s a total cheat, but completely in the fairground spirit of the story. I found myself looking for the shot as I re-watched it and still found it surprising – it’s far and away the most exciting bit in the film, all 40 seconds of it. As the unnamed nemesis, Timothy Bottoms makes for a dull and colourless villain – he is not the most expressive of actors at the best of times but in several films, such as his debut performances in The Last Picture Show and Johnny Got His Gun (both 1971), his general restraint served him extremely well. Here he is cast as the ultimate in calm and collected villainy, delivering all his dialogue with the same flat monotone. This contrasts of course with the easy charisma of Segal, but does also make the film drag a bit. If one imagines that this were an episode of Levinson and Link’s Columbo, one can see how this approach might have worked opposite Falk. it is said that co-writer and co-producer Richard Levinson was renowned for eschewing too much emotion on screen but this time I think he and his collaborators over did it a bit though.

Essentially then this is a fairly straightforward thriller, graced with a nice cast, some ingenious if unspectacular set-pieces and a memorable theme tune by Lalo Schifrin who adapted a merry-go-round melody by Bernard Herrmann to create a nice ‘hommage’ to the sound associated with the great Hitchcock collaborator. What this list of small but distinct pleasures tends to confirm though is that this is a small-scale TV-movie tricked up to look like a movie – the suspense sequences are all fundamentally intimate even if on a larger scale than one might have expected, with only impressive helicopter filming and the star cast to tell us that this is a bigger budget enterprise. Which means that this works surprisingly well when watched on TV, even large ones.

DVD Availability: The Region 2 DVD sports an impressive widescreen anamorphic transfer that preserves David M. Walsh fine ‘scope cinematography; and a three-channel audio mix that is slightly less impressive as it doesn’t even try to replicate the Sensurround experience.

Rollercoaster (1977)
Director: James Goldstone
Producer: Jennings Lang
Screenplay: Richard Levinson & William Link (story by Tommy Cook, Sanford Sheldon and L&L)
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Susan Strasberg, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, Helen Hunt, Steve Guttenberg, Craig Wasson

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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40 Responses to Rollercoaster (1977) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    I *think* I’ve seen this movie, but I’m not 100% sure. As a kid back in the 70s, I seem to remember the cinemas showing one of these kinds of films after another. Looking back, with a few notable exceptions, it all seems a bit of a blur. It feels like a transitional period in terms of blockbuster moviemaking; the historical epic had had its day, the big war movies were nearing the end of their run of popularity, and the sci-fi boom (which still seems to have some legs) was only peeping over the horizon. The era and genre may not have represented cinema at its best but, probably due to my age at the time, I retain a lot of nostalgic fondness for such stuff.

    • I think that’s an excellent summary Colin – The Airport series and the Poseidon Adventure / Towering Inferno Irwin Allen disaster films (Goldstone directed the last and least of these, When Time Ran Out) are largely old-fashioned, star driven Hollywood movies in the tradition of Grand Hotel – and pretty much represent the passing of the old guard before the Lucas, Coppola and Spielberg generation truly took over. Rollercoaster has been on the telly many times, though not that recently that I can recall. I have a real fondness for it and the DVD is technically impeccable.

      • Colin says:

        I think the main difference between the blockbuster/populist genre back then and now is, as you allude to, one of emphasis. That period before the influence of Spielberg and Lucas took over was more weighted towards selling movies on the basis of all-star casts, whereas today’s offerings (while still using “names” up to a point) focus much more on the effects and technology. Better or worse? I don’t know – but a little less human for sure.

        • It’s always going to be a crapshoot – the new Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter movie just tanked despite being based on a popular novel (albeit not an especially good one, very much in the sub-Anne Rice mould but with an amusing counter-factual twist) and the first thing anybody said was that this was because it had no stars – and yet there are plenty of ‘high concenpt’ productions that sell themselves purely on content. There is something fascinating abotu the way that the old Hollywood system continued to thrive, at least for a while, but in television rather than in the cinema, with shows like Murder, She Wrote and star-driven TV movies and mini-series. I actually have a lot of time for these – can’t think of a much guiltier pleasure than curling up to a solidly plotted mini-series like Chiefs for instance – even seen this one?

          • Colin says:

            I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that one. Actually, I quite miss that “old Hollywood” vibe that 70s and 80s TV did seem to incorporate. There were always familiar names both in front of and behind the cameras to draw you in. And while quality could be variable, mostly due to an overdependence on formulaic writing I think, there was some real talent and experience on show. It’s a shame we don’t really get that nowadays.

          • I do quite like the format of the mini-series, especially if you can watch without ad breaks, and I used to watch a lot of these in the 80s when I lived in South East Asia and we used to get a lot more US telly than I was used to. Chiefs stands out as a particularly good one I think, really benefitting from the extended running time. It used to be incredibly easy to find cheap on DVD but now seems a little harder to come by. TV up until then could still have that artificial glamour and glow we asociate with classic Hollywood, which really does seem very far away now. A lot of episodic TV was junk, no question about it, but I recently watched the first season of The Virginian, never having seen it before, and was amazed at at how good many of the episodes were even with the 75-minute running time, with great episodes by the likes of Burt Kennedy and Douglas Heyes (and even one by Sam Fuller starring Lee Marvin, though actually that was a bit of a disappointment). Beautifully made though and a lot of the anthologies are very impressive too. Just got the Criterion edition of 12 Angry Men which includes the original TV version as well as another one-hour play by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, Tragedy in a Temporary Town, starring Jeff Bridges along with several interviews and profiles. very impressive package.

          • Colin says:

            Straying way, way off topic here – sorry – but was that Virginian set the UK or US release? Being a miserable tightwad, I’ve been hoping for a better price on the UK set, and some word on whether or not the releases will continue.

          • This was the UK set – as far as I know it is identical to the US set (extras are limited to cast interviews all on the last disc). I must admit, I didn’t buy this one but was given a review copy and in fact didn’t realise how expensive it is. As far as I know, the first season is the only UK release so far while they have got much further in the US of course where the sixth season has just come out I believe.

          • Colin says:

            Cheers. I fully intend to pick up, probably the UK, first season release – just like to see that price drop a tad though.

          • You’re not kidding – I winced when I visited Amazon …

  2. Jeff Flugel says:

    Typically well-written, entertaining and very thorough review, Sergio! I’m curious to see this one. I’ve been on a bit of a 70s crime drama/cop movie kick recently and this one sounds like fun, with a good cast. Not sure if you cleaned up these screen-caps as well, but they look terrific; the transfer on the Region 2 DVD must be a good one.

    You and Colin both raise good points…the late 70s/early 80s were kind of the last bastion of the all-star, big name cast used as the chief selling point, before the high concept gimmick movie took over. I tend to find these 70s thrillers much more interesting than the recent spate of technically proficient but bland action films we get nowadays. Even something as ludicrous as THE CASSANDRA CROSSING offers quite a bit of entertainment value for its cast alone (and the chance to see Sophia Loren wield a submachine gun). Several of these star-studded extravaganzas deliver the real suspense goods, though; I’m thinking of stuff like JUGGERNAUT and the later ffolkes (a.k.a. NORTH SEA HIJACK).

    • Thanks very much Jeff – I did nothing to the DVD grabs, that’s exactly what it looks like on the UK release. Just to return the compliment, after your excellent review I ordered The Laughing Policeman on DVD and it arrived in the post yesterday and look forward to watching it over the weekend.

      Juggernaut, which I plan to review here shortly (maybe even next week), is to my way of thinking a really fine movie that deserves a lot more respect than it usually gets – I know what you mean abotu the star value, it does make even quite silly films more fun (I would add another George Pan Cosmatos film, Escape to Athena to your list – really stupid, really entertaining).

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        Thanks for the nice words re: my LAUGHING POLICEMAN review, Sergio! Hope you enjoy the DVD.

        Agreed on JUGGERNAUT. Another fine cast in that one, and a really good central performance from Richard Harris.

        • Until I read your review I’d truly forgotten a) how long it had been since I’d seen it (coming on for 25 years probably) and b), how much I wanted to see it again. Cheers mate!

    • Colin says:

      Jeff, North Sea Hijack is great fun; I saw it in the cinema when I was a kid and loved it ever since. Along with The Wild Geese & The Sea Wolves, all of which I caught at the flicks, these constitute what I remember someone referring to as McLaglen’s “old men on a mission” movies. I think they’re all great.

      And I don’t care what anyone says, The Cassandra Crossing is a top film!

      • Wild Geese was a bit too racy for me (at the time AA certificate surely …) though I saw North Sea Hijack at the movies on its initial release following coverage on Clapperboard on TV and I thought it was great fun. Loved the music scores by the likes of Roy Budd and Michael J. Lewis – I rerember pleading to be taken to see The Sea Wolves – can’t imagine what my parents thought of it (and that shot of Barbara Kellerman throwing the bottle will forever be imprinted in my pre-teen mind …).

        Michael Billington said it best when, reviewing The Sea Wolves: “As a genre, the arterio-sclerotic war movie, it’ll never take off”.

        • Colin says:

          No idea what certification The Wild Geese had, Irish cinemas back then were pretty free and easy as long as you were accompanied by parents. My mum took me to see it twice; my dad had dozed off the first time so either wasn’t invited back or just refused to go along for the second viewing.

          • Just looked it up and it was definitely AA when it got sceened in the UK (15 on video now). I would have been 10 when it came out, but to be honest I can’t imagine I would have managed to get taken to such a controversial film after all the fuss about it being shot in South Africa during Apartheid, which i must admit still rankles with me to this day. I distinctly remember wanting to see it though. Isn’t it odd, I mentioned 12 Angry Men earlier on and of course Reginald Rose wrote the screenplays for both!

  3. Skywatcher says:

    I’m pleased to see that NORTH SEA HIJACK is getting some much deserved love. I adore those 70′s/80′s action movies (to my mind, any movie that has Roger Moore in can’t be all bad). I watched NSH again recently, and it’s still an entertaining romp. The same goes for THE WILD GEESE, THE SEA WOLVES, ESCAPE TO ATHENA and so on. Interesting to note that in WILD GEESE two of the three stars are over fifty, and the other is nearly fifty (and looks older!). When Bruce Willis did the film RED a few years ago, there was much talk about the elderly stars, but Willis was about the same age as Moore and co.

    Does anyone here recall another late seventies Moore movie called SHOUT AT THE DEVIL? It has him teaming up with Lee Marvin to take on WWI Germany in Zanzibar. My memories of it are very blurred, since I can’t remember it being shown on UK television for at least twenty years!

    • Colin says:

      I certainly remember Shout at the Devil, another I’m pretty sure I saw in the cinema & i think I might even have a DVD lying around somewhere. It was adapted from a Wilbur Smith novel.

      • Definitely remember Shout at the Devil – It was a sort of follow-up to Gold, another Wilbur Smith adaptation starring Moore and directed by Peter Hunt, the great Bond editor and director of OHMSS (and a couple of episodes of The Persuaders I seem to remember)

    • Weirdly, I ended up going to see North See Hijack twice at the cinema at the time – I think it was showing on a double bill (either Chariots of Fire of Rising Damp the Movie, can’t remember which…) and I went back to see the other half (as it were) and got the times wrong! So of all of these I remember it the most clearly – along with For Your Eyes Only, this was the other Roger Moore movie with a female PM!

  4. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great discussion, guys! I’m a big fan of these “arterio-sclerotic” action movies, especially THE WILD GEESE, which I think is a helluva film. THE SEA WOLVES is great fun, too. Give me a cast of veteran tough guy actors with some real skills over the callow twentysomething pretty boy stars that headline most action stuff today, any time.

    ESCAPE TO ATHENA is a really odd film, Sergio, I agree. I mean, Sonny Bono?! Roger Moore playing a German officer? Weird casting, but somehow it all works, in a shaggy dog sort of way. Lots of fun, and some nice action in it too (that motorcycle chase with Donald Sutherland is pretty great). Have you seen the U.K. Blu-Ray of ATHENA? It’s looks absolutely gorgeous.

    Unlike you fine folks, i never got to see most of these films at the theater; can’t remember them even coming to my rural neck of the woods. But they were ABC Sunday Night Movie specials. This is where I caught most Bond films, all the non-Bond Roger Moore action pics, including of course my beloved THE WILD GEESE. I do remember SHOUT AT THE DEVIL quite well, though I haven’t seen it in over 30 years. It’s a pity it’s so rare to see nowadays – I’d love to give it another spin.

    • These were the exciting film when I was 11 and 12 so it’s hard not to remember them with great affection – I think Sea Wolves may be my favourite, not least because it is based on a true story, even if Peck struggles a bit with his British accent.

      Athena is just bizarre, with its rocket climax and even Richard Roundtree turning up – but hey, great score by Lalo Schifrin, all beautifully shot as always by Cosmatos so what’s to complain about? However, that’s never Donald Sutherland in Escape to Athena (you’re thinking of The Eagle Has Landed, right?)- it’s Anthony Valentine, surely? Here’s a snippet, towards the end of the clip, of the motor bike chase – used to love Elliot Gould’s movies.

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        D’oh! sorry, i meant Elliot Gould o the motorcycle, of course. Thanks for the correction!
        I had forgotten that ATHENA was a Cosmatos film…now it all makes sense.

        • I can;t believe that Gould and Sutherland only made two films together – for some reason I always thought it was more – it should have been! Hell, still could be!

          I remain of the opinion that Cosmats’ Of Unknown Origin is a terrific and little respected suspense flick well deserving of re-appraisal – in fact, that’s just what I’ll do – expect something not shortish and pithy-ish in about a fortnight! As a taster:

  5. Skywatcher says:

    SEA WOLVES is great. They just seemed to have got hold of every 50-something British actor available at that moment, handed them a gun and said “Right, you’re an action hero!” Peck’s accent is sort of mid-Atlantic, but I remember him saying that he had actually made a point of meeting the person that he was playing in the film. His original intent was to try and sound as much like him as possible. Unfortunately he found the man completely incomprehensible, so he settled on the film accent to make him understandable for the American audience.

    • I dare say the Brits were quite flattered to have an Oscar-winner playing a little-known hero, wavering accent or not. It is an ultra-typical Euan Lloyd production as you say with lots of vontage British actors, decent if not extravagant production values, a script by a very reliable old-hand, workmanlike direction and a great score by Roy Budd!

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Cinemax obligingly ran ROLLERCOASTER this morning, and so I saw it for the first time. The Levinson and Link touch is all over it, as is the basic (top-flight) television-vet feel to the production. The direction is a bit slack at times, but I think the affectlessness of Bottoms is spot-on for the kind of loon he is, and I didn’t have any other serious quibbles with the acting (though the tall guy in Sparks certainly looks more out of his element than in most performances by the band I’ve seen over the years). That bit of misdirection on the coaster is a pretty cheap laugh, all right…Joe Dante presumably would approve, as well. And it certainly was interesting to see King’s Dominion (and the Rebel Yell) a decade before I would first experience them.

    • Cheers Todd, that really was a good bit of timing. Glad you enjoyed it – for a while it was a bit of a TV staple in Italy so I probably saw it several times over the years. One of the joys of it, apart fromt he odd bit of showmanship and the rock interlude, is how comparatively low-tech it all is – really amused me when Bottoms’ bomb plan got thwarted so he just went back to hsi car in the car park and just went right ahead and bit another bomb in five minutes, like McGiver in reverse!

  7. Sergio, thanks for a terrific review. I saw ROLLERCOASTER several years ago and while I don’t remember much about the movie I do have a rather vague recollection of Timothy Bottoms’ role in it. I thought he was damned good as the young blackmailer who terrorised amusement parks. It will probably all come back to me if I saw it again. Bottoms acted in many films though I remember him only for ROLLERCOASTER and OPERATION: DAYBREAK. I plead ignorance as far as his other body of work is concerned including his television ventures. I have often wondered why Bottoms didn’t last longer in public limelight. He had the looks and he could definitely act.

    I see here mention being made of THE SEA WOLVES which, incidentally, was shot in my backyard — in Panjim City, the capital of the West India state of Goa, one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world (I now live in Bombay, in neighbouring Maharashtra). I had the rare occasion to watch Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven at close quarters, and on one particular occasion even stood next to Peck as he read through some pages, his script I guess. I was only thirteen and I didn’t realise just how big they were until I was much older, though I knew their names even then. The trio created quite a stir during their stay in Goa which wasn’t surprising as most Indians are cinema buffs and are familiar with Hollywood actors and films, old and new.

    • Bottoms has a slightly thankless role in Apocalypse Now but is really wonderful in The Last Picture Show – if you can track that down you’re in for a real treat. Its based on a really superb novel by Larry McMurtry.

      That’s fantastic about Sea Wolves Prashant, how amazing. I saw it at the cinema when I was the same age. You have to write a post about it mate, you have to!

  8. Skywatcher says:

    Peck was one of those American actors (rather like Charlton Heston) that British audiences were happy to see playing British characters. Their accents weren’t exactly English, but they had a certain restrained quality that made them convincing.

    I can remember watching ROLLERCOASTER when it was originally released, but the only bit of it that I can remember is the moment where Timothy Bottoms reveals to Segal that the bomb is in the walkie-talkie that he is holding. Bottoms always looked as if he might be a big star in the early 70s, but by the time this movie was made he seemed to be on the way down. He’s actually the epitome of the ‘jobbing actor’ who works pretty constantly and always turns in a competent performance. That said, he’s not really a charismatic, dynamic personality, which probably accounts for the fact that he didn’t make it as big as some of his contemporaries.

    Prashant: According to his autobiography, Roger Moore seemed to enjoy filming in Goa. One of the best of his Bond movies (OCTOPUSSY) also had an Indian setting, although I think that it was filmed further North-West.

    • Bottoms recently played George W. Bush a couple of times and was really good – but it is I think true that there is a restrained, even passive quality to his persona which may help explain why stardom as a leading man eluded him after the 70s – definitely a decent actor though

  9. Skywatcher, thanks for the input about Moore and the Indian setting in OCTOPUSSY. He was definitely the second-best 007 after Connery. I only saw snatches of the shooting of THE SEA WOLVES; particularly one scene that was shot on a fishing trawler just behind my house. I think it had Gregory Peck or David Niven (I don’t remember which) coming round the wheelhouse of the boat with a gun in his hands. My friends and I watched this scene being shot more than once. The Hollywood trio was rather humble in their bearing and seemed to enjoy all the attention they got from the Goans, as the people of Goa are known, unlike some of our own stars out here.

    • I think I like Octopussy a bit less that Skywatcher as I found the humour a bit too farcical and Moore just a bit too long in the tooth to be convincing, though thanks to some weight loss and a face lift he looked much younger (if perpetually startled) 2 years later in View to a Kill. In recent years I have warmed to its old fashioned sense of adventure, presumably part of the contribution of ‘Flash’ novelist George Macdonald Fraser to the original script. Great to hear these stories about the making of the film.

  10. Rod Croft says:

    The “Sensurround” process certainly added an extra suspense factor to “Earthquake”, that I thought slightly lacking in “Rollecoaster”, and therefore found the former film more entertaining. Particularily effective and frightening was the impression of the theatre seats shaking prior to the arrival of the aftershock , and before being acknowledged by the characters on the screen.

    I find it interesting to read the thoughts of a slightly younger generation than I, discussing childhood memories of films in the 1970 -80′s, whereas most of my fond memories are of the 1950-60′s. A lot of these films may not have been critically acclaimed, but to me they were, and remain, “favourites”, and I am most grateful that techonology allows us to re-visit them.

    • Thanks for that Rod. Earthquake is technically beautifully put together, with wonderful special efects and maye paintings by Albert Whitlock, but it is remarkably depressing and very dour in places (not to mention the downbeat ending). The whole subplot with Victoria Principal for instance borders on the perverse! I know what you mean about hanging on to the impact of those early pop culture experiences, though even as a child of the 70s I have very strong ties to the icons of my parents’ generation as that is what they shared with us (my brother and I) when we were growing up. Just as likely, therefore, to love movies with la Loren or music by Dave Brubeck, albeit second hand.

  11. Rod Croft says:

    I certainly agree with your description of “Earthquake” as “depressing” and “dour” but it would be difficult to make a reasonably realistic, serious film on such a subject without examining the resultant devastating effects on the population and the site of such a disaster.

    Television had, by 1960, brought the true tragedy of earthquakes directly into the family home and, by presenting a false premise to the audience, would not have been acceptable, hence perhaps, the serious, even “dour” approach to the subject by the makers of “Earthquake”.

    Had the film been made in the early 1950′s or before, we would have seen a rather light-hearted , perhaps, even frivolous photo-play, similar to that of “San Francisco”. In that particular film, following the earthquake and subsequent fire, surviving citizens shout – ” The fire is out”; “We’ll build a new San Francisco !”; and they march en masse down the streets singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

    I have not seen either “Rollercoaster” or ” Earthquake” without the benefit of “Sensurround”, a luxury not enjoyed by viewers of the DVD’s and, as with “cropped” presentations, an important aspect that you have addressed in reviewing films for today’s audiences.

    My parents, who were avid film-goers, were also instrumential in exciting both my brother’s and my interest in film. In fact, my wife’s family were similarily interested in film, as I believe many were, in the “Golden Age of Cinema”.

    • Thanks very much for that Rod, very much appreciated. ‘Natural’ disasters, or at least non man-made ones, deserve to be treated differently and one can imagine that the Hollywood community in California would have a special sensitivity to stories about quakes and fires given their propensity literally in their backyard. What struck me about the film at the time (by which I mean when I first saw it on TV in the 80s as I didn’t see it when it came out at the cinema though I was going by that time and saw Jaws on its original release for instance) was how, when compared with the likes of the Irwin Allen spectaculars like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, it seems to want to depict nearly all the characters in a truly ‘warts and all’ style. I’m not sure that this is for the sake of ‘realism’ but rather as if somehow to it wants to give a Sodom and Gomorrah feel / justification to the narrative, though it is absolutely true that the Mario Puzo script deserves kudos for taking a less fluffy approach. I do wonder to what extent though the depiction of many of the principal (no pun intended) characters as being so self-centred and basically unattractive is meant to justify the destruction rather than just provide some sort of plausibility. Which is to say that I always remember the special effects a lot more than the individual story-lines, just like the Allen spectaculars, but couldn’t enjoy them as much. May need to watch it again though, it’s been quite a while actually.

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