Writer/director Andrew Stone, with his co-producer/editor wife Virginia, had a knack for pulling off large-scale pics on the proverbial dime. But where at times it felt as if they’d bitten off more than they could chew, this less ambitious project feels just right; lean & mean, emphasis on mean. James Mason is perfectly cast as the new ship’s captain, an emergency transfer from fancy luxury liner to grimy freighter. Expecting resentment from the rough-and-tumble crew, he’s unaware/unprepared for crewmen Broderick Crawford & Stuart Whitman, a couple of malcontent sociopaths with a plan to kill everyone on board, damage the ship, then float in to claim a million bucks salvage. And when sexy Dorothy Dandridge comes aboard with her husband, the replacement cook, she becomes one more opportunity to rile things up. Stone quickly starts turning the screws on this one, setting up one neat suspense piece after another, with stabbing cuts & composition ‘reveals’ that really make you jump. Much helped by his use of a real ship with tight corridors & the relentless chug of the engines. (The only ‘music’ in here.) No-frills tech work also plays its part, efficient & effective, with special kudos going to tv lenser Meredith Nicholson who figured out how to light in mighty tight spaces. The film is nothing fancy, but in a good way; with honest, neatly played action, believable thrills and those extra creepy perfs from Crawford & Whitman, who goes after Dandridge like a man possessed. Who knew this bland leading man had it in him?
DOUBLE-BILL: Another surprise at sea, Richard Lester’s subversive ‘disaster pic,’ JUGGERNAUT/’74 with Omar Sharif & Richard Harris playing mind games as ship’s captain & mad bomber.