Saturday, August 27, 2022

#2,806. The Cassandra Crossing (1976) - Infection Triple Feature


A star-studded disaster film in the same vein as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, director George P. Cosmatos’ The Cassandra Crossing floods the screen with action and intrigue aplenty, and while some of what transpires might come off as a bit silly, the movie has an energy that’s positively... well, infectious!

A trio of terrorists attempts to blow up a high-security lab at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. There’s a brief shootout with the building’s security, during which a container housing a deadly experimental virus is struck. One of the terrorists (played by Lou Castel) manages to escape and make his way to a nearby station, where he sneaks onto a train headed for Stockholm.

Also on board this train are doctor Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris); Chamberlain’s ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren); socialite Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner) and her boy-toy Robby (Martin Sheen); a federal agent posing as a Reverend (O.J. Simpson); a nanny (Alida Valli) and her young charge; Concentration camp survivor Herman (Lee Strasberg); a conductor named Max (Lionel Stadler), and nearly a thousand other passengers. What none of them realize is the stowaway terrorist has been infected with a virus similar to the pneumonic plague, and the longer he is permitted to roam free, the more danger there is of an outbreak.

To prevent the virus from spreading any further, Colonel Stephen Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) of U.S. Military Intelligence, working inside WHO headquarters with doctor Elena Stradner (Ingrid Thulin), re-routes the train to Poland, where it must pass over a dilapidated bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing before reaching its final destination.

The moment the opening titles end, The Cassandra Crossing is off and running, with a well-staged showdown between the terrorists (who have discovered that the U.S. Army is conducting germ warfare experiments in a neutral country) and the WHO security forces. The tension continues to mount when the surviving terrorist, clearly infected with the virus, boards the train, where, after hiding out in the baggage car (and stealing water from the cage of a Basset Hound), he takes a stroll, infecting a number of other passengers including a young singer named Susan (Ann Turkel).

Once they’ve tracked the terrorist’s whereabouts, Mackenzie contacts Dr. Chamberlain by radio and informs him of the potential danger, essentially putting the doctor in charge on the situation. Scenes in which the sick are identified and quarantined (surprisingly, Dr. Chamberlain takes hardly any precautions when dealing with the infected) are followed by more harrowing sequences, when army personnel, wearing Hazmat suits and brandishing automatic weapons, board the train and force everyone to turn over their personal belongings. It’s one of several moments in which The Cassandra Crossing draws a not-too-subtle parallel between U.S. forces and WWII-era Nazis. Even the train’s re-routed destination is a former Concentration Camp in Janov, Poland, the very camp where Lee Strasberg’s Herman lost his wife and children during the war.

Along with the tension and intrigue, The Cassandra Crossing offers up plenty of drama as well, from Chamberlain and Jennifer bickering early on to the revelation that Robby has been using Nicole as a front (and an unwitting one at that) to smuggle drugs across Europe. And if all this isn’t disturbing enough, there’s the added worry of a bridge that might very well collapse the minute the train tries to pass over it!

The story and situations are, at times, over-the-top, as are some of the performances, and there are moments that will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief. In one of the movie’s more ridiculous scenes, a helicopter flies overhead and drops a basket by rope, fully expecting Chamberlain and Jennifer, who are leaning out of the speeding train, to grab hold of it and place the body of the infected terrorist inside!

But the film moves along at a brisk pace, and there are a handful of nerve-racking sequences mixed in as well. So while The Cassandra Crossing may not rank among the elite of ‘70s disaster films, it’s far from the worst!
Rating: 6 out of 10

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