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.
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