by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Assault on a Queen, a 1965 co-production of Paramount, Seven Arts and Sinatra Enterprises, Inc. and an obvious attempt by star Frank Sinatra to duplicate his success with Ocean’s Eleven five years earlier by casting himself as another burned-out ex-servicemember (ex-Navy this time) plotting a big heist — only this time, instead of five Las Vegas casinos, his target is the ocean liner Queen Mary (then in its last years of active service as a cruise ship before it was sold to Long Island as a combination hotel and theme park). The film opens with adventurer Vic Rossiter (Anthony Franciosa) and his girlfriend Rosa Lucchesi (Virna Lisi) diving off the coast of the Bahamas looking for sunken treasure left behind by the Spanish in the age of the conquistadores. The diver they hired to do the actual underwater work suddenly drowns because of a defect in the suit they rented for him from Trench (Val Avery), and they need another diver, pronto.
Meanwhile, Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) — whose last name is pronounced as if it were the French “Bretagne” — is a burned-out ex-Navy captain who is running a fishing boat and is in hock for about $600 to Trench, who in addition to renting out bad diving equipment also runs the marina where Mark keeps his boat and sells him his gas. Because he needs the money immediately, Mark hires out as the diver for Vic, Rosa and their third crew member, Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kjellin) — who, like Mark, also served on a Navy submarine in World War II, only on the German side. They don’t find any Spanish treasure (earlier Mark had given a great debunking speech saying that the legendary sites of Spanish wrecks had been picked over so thoroughly they’d be better off trying their luck in Las Vegas — advice Sinatra and the filmmakers would have done well to heed, since when Sinatra did this sort of movie in Las Vegas as Ocean’s Eleven they had much better results both artistically and commercially!) but they do find a sunken but miraculously intact German submarine, which they clean up (mostly a matter of scraping the seaweed and barnacles off her) and hire yet another person, engineer Tony Moreno (Richard Conte), to get into running order. Their idea is to become undersea pirates and hijack the Queen Mary, stealing the cash from the ship’s onboard bank as well as the bullion it carries, netting themselves $1 million and setting themselves up for life. Only of course things go wrong and in the end Mark and Rosa, the only members of the gang who survive, are together in a raft but without the money or the rest of their crew.
Assault on a Queen has a credit list that practically defines the word “overqualified” — the source novel was by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the script by Rod Serling (though it’s a straightforward crime story with no supernatural or science-fictional elements and no social commentary, either, thereby avoiding the three sorts of writing Serling was best at), the cinematography by veteran William Daniels (who also got an “associate producer” credit), Virna Lisi’s costumes by Edith Head (though pretty much the extent of her wardrobe here is a white blouse and tight black pants, which I doubt presented Head much of a design challenge), and the music by Duke Ellington — though with Nathan Van Cleave getting a credit as orchestrator (he probably wrote the string parts for the main theme, heard at both the beginning and the end) and the Duke contributing a perfectly serviceable score, much like the kind Oliver Nelson was adorning several Universal movies at the time, but hardly on the level of his (and Billy Strayhorn’s) genuinely exciting and creative work on Anatomy of a Murder.
What all these heavyweight talents came up with was a movie that was moderately entertaining but all too predictable, albeit with some nice touches (like the huge diamond being worn by a dowager passenger on the Queen Mary, which Vic attempts to steal — thereby dropping the two huge ingots of gold he was supposed to be carrying out and delaying the heist long enough to get himself shot and keep the rest of the robbers from getting their loot; and the final confrontation between Mark and Eric, in which Eric, used to seeing the U.S. military as his enemy, wants to shoot at the crew of the Coast Guard cutter that’s chasing them while Mark, though crooked, is still enough of a U.S. patriot that he doesn't want to commit an act of war against a U.S. vessel) and a far cry from Ocean’s Eleven, which compared to this benefited from a much more fun supporting cast (including all five of the “Rat Pack), a better director (Lewis Milestone instead of hack Jack Donohue) and an insouciant air of comedy that made for a much more entertaining film because it’s easier to like a bunch of lovably roguish crooks than the pettily mean ones of Assault on a Queen.