Before Titanic (1997), there was Shelley Winters, who was the largest of the notable names on the manifest of the luxury liner SS Poseidon that is capsized by a freak tidal wave caused by an undersea earthquake in this surprisingly well-directed disaster flick.
The captain (Leslie Nielsen) and his bridge officers are killed instantly. Nearly all of the passengers whooping it up in the ship’s ballroom at a New Year’s Eve party are also killed.
Led by two-fisted liberal, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), ten survivors climb a giant Christmas tree to escape the flooding ballroom.
Leaving with the reverend are young Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and an older Jewish couple, the Rosens, Belle (Shelley Winters) and Manny (Jack Albertson).
Also going with Scott’s group are argumentative police officer, Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, former prostitute Linda (Stella Stevens), as well as a single man, Mr Martin (Red Buttons) and traumatised singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley, with her singing voice dubbed by Maureen McGovern).
The group thread their way through the upside-down world of the liner – from top to bottom – in search of a way out (worthwhile simply to see Shelley Winters squeezing through airshafts).
The intriguing inverted sets designed by William Creber camouflage most of the movie’s dramatic implausibilities, while the steadily-rising water injects a healthy measure of tension.
The sets were mounted on slanted tracks which were gradually lowered into water tanks while Ms Winters, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine emoted furiously.
Produced by legendary producer Irwin Allen, The Poseidon Adventure was the first major “disaster movie” success putting a weird conglomeration of humanity at peril.
It spawned a terrible sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and the genre soon gathered momentum with basically the same story taking place on crashing planes, in burning skyscrapers and during major earthquakes.
Reverend Frank Scott
Pamela Sue Martin