Our August theme of the month, High Seas, continues with Assault on a Queen (1966).

PAUSE IT: What do you see? Five figures stand in frame. The composition is balanced with roughly two characters occupying both the left and right edges of the screen; in the middle, Trinidadian actor and playwright Errol John is positioned next to a bifurcating pole. The featured still from this Sinatra caper gives us an opportunity to look closer at the ways in which the choice of aspect ratio affects a story. Assault on a Queen makes use of every inch of its 2.35:1 frame to capture oblong submarines, cruiseliners, and compositions such as this one here. Dismissed at the time of its inception by many including the great Fritz Lang who famously said that widescreen formats were only good for shooting snakes and funerals, aspect ratios such as Cinemascope and VistaVision dominated postwar Hollywood cinema and paved the way for modern incarnations like IMAX to become more widely accepted, if not preferred, by audiences. Widescreen formats have stood the test of time because audiences have always yearned to see their movies bigger. In Assault on a Queen, director Jack Donohue and cinematographer William H. Daniels might have relied on a more classically square frame or what is colloquially known as Academy Ratio (1.37:1), but how would this have changed are visual interpretation of the film? Where the square frame of Academy Ratio induces more of a feeling of completeness and stability within the viewer, the elongated frame such as the one used here can have the effect of putting us ill at ease. As Lang pointed out, the horizontality of a frame is ideal for shooting panoramic vistas, but what Lang short-sightedly failed to fully appreciate is that the widescreen format can also be put to excellent use when filming people in the midst of heightened emotion. When used in this manner the claustrophobic nature of a horizontal frame threatens to cave in on its subject. As Assault on A Queen races to its exciting conclusion, one can really start to get a sense of this phenomenon in the scenes depicting the attempted high seas heist. As the tension ratchets up and our protagonists’ fates hang in the balance, the submarine’s low ceilings, jutting angles, and narrow passageways are filmed to physically manifest the psychological peril the gang of thieves find themselves in.

Assault on a Queen (1966)
Director: Jack Donohue
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Virna Lisi, Anthony Franciosa, and Errol John
Cinematography by: William H. Daniels
You can take home Assault on a Queen on DVD and Blu-ray.

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