A group of treasure hunters approach deep sea diver Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra) to search for a sunken galleon. Reluctant at first, money troubles eventually drive Mark and his friend Linc Langley (Errol John) to partner with beautiful high-roller Rosa Lucchesi (Virna Lisi), her slimy boyfriend Vic Rossiter (Anthony Franciosa), and former Nazi u-boat captain Eric Lauffnauer (Alf Kjellin) on this dangerous dive. Instead of the galleon, Mark discovers a sunken Nazi submarine, which Lauffnauer decides to raise and refit and stage and audacious ocean heist upon the luxury liner, the Queen Mary.
Based on a novel by Invasion of the Body Snatchers author Jack Finney, Assault on a Queen aims to be a sort of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) at sea, but is nowhere as taut. In fact it’s downright leisurely, constrained by a talky script by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling far too hung up on the romantic tension between Mark and Rosa while supporting characters lounge about, smoke endless cigarettes, and switch from canny conspirators to panicky idiots amidst the last twenty minutes. Sinatra and Lisi are class acts, but the former trades largely on his Rat Pack cool being laid back to the point of nonchalance, while the latter is reduced to glamour gal despite being a great actress as well as a great beauty. Check out her award-winning turn in La Reine Margot (1994) as proof.
Co-financed by Sinatra’s own production company, the man behind the camera was Jack Donahue, a onetime chorus boy who made the Disney musical Babes in Toyland (1961), but was largely a TV hand including sitcoms and episodes of The Frank Sinatra Show. Glossy cinematography by William Daniels and William H. Clothier imparts a seductive sheen upon everything from the ocean view to Lisi’s suntanned legs, but Donahue brings nary an ounce of zest to the B-movie plot.
Much of it rests on Mark’s moral dilemmas and the intricacies of planning the sea hijack, with wrinkles caused by Vic’s inability to master a British accent and intervention from the U.S. Coast Guard. Franciosa’s ill-characterised villain trades tough talk with Sinatra, but while greedy, racist and self-centred, emerges more foolish than menacing. Crime film veteran Richard Conte turns up later as the engineer hired to refurbish the sub, but his character switches from matey to menace at the drop of a hat.
Every submarine movie features at least one episode wherein they run silent to avoid depth charges from above. Here, Donahue finally works up some tension when Mark refuses to fire on a U.S. vessel, although fails to explain why the hitherto ice-cool Lauffnauer panics so easily he abandons the loot. Swinging soundtrack by Duke Ellington.