In 27 years as a movie star, Paul Newman has never looked as discouraged as he does in "When Time Ran Out. . . ."
In the prophetically titled clinker, producer Irwin Allen desperately struggles to recapture the hit form of "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno." Newman, of course, appeared in "The Towering Inferno," along with William Holden, another veteran of Allen's all-star casualty list, which also includes "Poseidon" regulars Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine. Perhaps it's unprofessional of Newman to let his disillusionment show, but he's got a right: Allen has finally scraped the bottom of the disaster-thriller barrel.
"Ran Out" began as a period spectacle called "The Day the World Ended," based on the Gordon Thomas-Max Morgan Witts book about the eruption of Mt. Pelee on Martinique in 1902. This disaster is referred to by Holden's character, a hotel owner whose luxury resort on an apocryphal Pacific island called Kalaleu is threatened by the sudden eruption of a long-dormant volcano.
Newman plays a wildcatter who strikes oil in a field near the volcano and begins to suspect something fishy from his pressure gauges. His business partner, James Franciscus, is also associated in the hotel business with Holden and seems to run things at a geological station teetering with hilarious convenience on the edge of the volcanic crater.
Franciscus, ruled by uncontrollable greed and Oedipal resentment (he throws a volcanic paperweight at an oil painting of his late, domineering dad), tries to conceal the dangerous reading building up in the crater. You'll recognize him instantly as a reductio ad absurdum of the caddish Richard Chamberlain character in "The Towering Inferno." It comes as no surprise to discover that he's also an adulterer, betraying boring wife Veronica Hamel with nearly-as-boring mistress Barbara Carrera, a Polynesian hotel employe deceiving Polynesian boyfriend Edward Albert, almost coiffured into effeminancy until last-act heroics permit him to do some sweating and straining.
Jacqueline Bisset is inserted for half-hearted romantic triangulation with Newman and Holden. Courted by the latter, she once consorted with the former, who's reluctant to be Hurt Again although Bisset is eager to pick up where they left off. "When Time Ran Out . . ." is such a bad movie that Newman actually purses his lips to indicate emotional distress when Bisset turns up again. Inbedded in this dodey charade even he forgets that no acting is often the best acting.
Following a rather effective sequence in which Newman's well gushes in, the movie descends into sustained idocy without further ado. The characters are confronted with cliffhanging dilemmas that never come close to looking authentic or making sense. Allen, disaster-prone with a vengeance, lingers over each shoddy, cockamamie peril.
Franciscus, still indicating the theory that the volcano might blow, remains a diehard to the end. And since characters in stupid movies always act as if they've never seen a stupid movie about people in peril, he convinces a vast majority of Holden's hotel guests to stick around and get bombarded by the volcano's blazing, deadeye meteoroids as well.
Not that it matters. Newman, Holden and Albert lead a small party of evacuees on a merry run for cover: over a roadblock, along a mountain ledge and across a rickety bridge, the fudgy red lava flowing luridly in the gorge below.
All of this seems curiously familiar, even redundant, but that doesn't stop Allen from trying to re-stage his old gags in slightly different settings. Newman, embarking on the single silliest assignment of his career, is required to test the slats in the bridge. The indignity of it all seems to be underlined as his foot crashes through each rotten board, threatening to plunge him into the fiery goo.
There's an element of sick slapstick in this escape party. Buttons and Borgnine are entrusted with one of those little human interest subplots that Allen rationalizes so poorly. In this cast Buttons, made up to resemble a diminutive Jack Albertson, is a suspected embezzler being tailed by flatfoot Borgnine. When Borgnine is blinded by one of the early meteor showers at the hotel, Buttons gallantly takes him in hand.
As if Allen needed further inducements to unintentional laughter, the sight of Buttons trying to manuever a disabled Borgnine along a narrow ledge and across a decrepit bridge is calculated to leave the audience helpless with sarcastic mirth. Borgnine, frowning under his eye bandages and groping for support, emerges as the symbol of the cast itself. I suppose Irwin Allen kept assuring the actors that he knew where he was going. For old times' sake, they've followed him into an abyss.