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Rollercoaster (1977)

George Segal picked a hell of a week to quit smoking.

It’s awfully hard not to let that thought cross your mind in this post Lloyd Bridges Era. Segal stars here as a Department of Standard and Safety Officer who is trying to stay off the nicotine habit while a crazed bomber is holding amusement parks ransom for 1 million dollars. The truth is in the post Jaws era, this plot has it’s moments where one could easily compare it to the Spielberg super hit.

Timothy Bottoms is cast as our bomber/killer (subbing for a shark) who over the opening few minutes sets off a small bomb that twists the rails of a speeding rollercoaster ride resulting in carnage, hysteria and death. Henry Fonda sends Segal in to investigate since it was he who gave the coaster a passing grade not too long ago. When another disaster is narrowly averted over in Pittsburgh, Segal begins to have his suspicions and when he gets wind of a meeting held between five powerful men who own the parks, he finds himself on the inside of a million dollar extortion.

While Harry Guardino may be the head police officer in charge of the original bombing, Richard Widmark shows up as the FBI agent in charge of the operation. It’s a reunion for these two fine actors who teamed together in the 1968 film, Madigan. Widmark is his usual cocksure investigator who figures he won’t be needing Segal’s help from here forward. That all changes when the bomber demands Segal be used as the drop man. And so the game of cat and mouse begins between Segal and Bottoms via phone conversations and walkie talkie instructions.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan in the original film, Segal is run all over an amusement park in West Virginia with a suitcase full of money. He’s taking direction from Bottoms via radio to ensure all the FBI agents are no where near Segal and the money. This might be the most enjoyable twenty minutes of the film with Segal once again proving why he’s such a likable leading man during this era of his career. He’s moving from one ride to another with a beaten dog look about him just wanting this day to end. Me? I’d have been sick on the first ride he’s made to get on. Some drop man I’d make while I’m heaving my stomach’s contents behind the nearest fortune teller’s tent.

Widmark refuses to play the game and when Bottoms finds out the money is marked, he fully intends to set an example of the power he is capable of. Segal is drawn back for one more go around that will culminate on the 4th of July celebrations at a local park where a brand new coaster is set to open. Even the Mayor turns up and of course the money men who operate the park want it open for business.

“Those beaches will stay open.” Where the heck is Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Vaughn when you need him?

You want another Jaws reference? How about this. Segal’s first name here is Harry. Cue the quote, “That’s some bad hat Harry.”

Rollercoaster is a great example of the thriller genre that theater goers were subjected to in the late 70’s with a well known cast to match. Segal was for me a fun actor during the decade and Widmark had by this time settled into the role of the “establishment”. FBI agents and the like who were always dead sure of themselves and at odds with the leading man over procedure.  Fonda was also appearing in countless elongated cameos by this time and both he and Widmark would play similar roles the following year in The Swarm.

A pretty good thriller here from director James Goldstone with effective POV shots and some great night time photography as the parks light up the dark skies though a bit over long clocking in at 119 minutes. With Segal leading the charge there are more than a few scenes of comedy that work well and that’s once again a credit to Segal’s on screen charisma. Playing his girlfriend you’ll see Susan Strasberg and as his teenage daughter, future Oscar winner, Helen Hunt. Trivia buffs might catch site of a brief turn by Steven Guttenberg and whatever happened to Craig Wasson? He’s in here as well and along with Guttenberg, makes his movie debut.

Enjoy this one for what it is, a popcorn movie highlighted by Segal’s verbal sparring with Bottoms and the always welcome Widmark playing a hard case. I hadn’t seen this one for years but recently picked up the Shout Factory blu ray. A welcome addition to the vault here at home.

8 Comments »

  1. While it’s not in the same class as the big three, the original Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, this is a decent disaster, although it’s really more suspense, flick from the prime zone of that genre which within the year would totter into absurdity with trash like The Swarm.

    Where this one keeps its head and therefore the audience’s involvement is that it keeps the story AND the situations believable even without the Sensurround that was a big selling point when it was originally released.

    George Segal’s everyman affability is a big asset to making his character relatable and the blandness of Timothy Bottoms, usually a major deficit in any role he played, is a good fit making the evilness and blank indifference to the carnage he causes more unsettling.

    Richard Widmark’s role doesn’t challenge him one iota but his gruff intractability is a welcome as always. Strasberg and Hunt are likewise given roles that ask little of them but they manage to make the most of them. Altogether an enjoyable watch

    • Of the big three, Poseidon has always been my favorite. This played far better than I remembered to be honest and Segal has a lot to do with it. I probably saw it on it’s network TV premiere I’m guessing around 1981ish. While I’m not positive, I think films usually took 3 years or so to make the jump to the small screen.

  2. Haha “George Segal picked a hell of a week to quit smoking.” LOL
    Oh man I haven’t seen this in years. Strangely I had falsely thought I remembered Richard Attenborough being the bad guy. No idea what I was thinking about! Time for a revisit. It’s sometimes a shame some of these old film actioners didn’t edit themselves down a bit. 1h 45min is a max most of the time imho.

    • Good old Dickie may have spiced up the film had he been cast. I’m no fan of Bottoms as he’s pretty dull though it works here. He totally underplays everything versus someone like Hopper in Speed who goes the other way. Makes for a fun revisit.

      • Hopper in Speed was brilliant, he played that role so well, funny as I spied Waterworld was on the telly as I flicked through the channels and Hopper popped up reminding me what a rubbish film that was and Hopper was outrageously maniac again. LOl….TBH I don’t know Bottoms very well apart from the super Johnny Get Your Gun. But he’s covered up 90% of the film!!!

  3. Not a bad film. The bit I always remember the most is when the rollercoaster is sabotaged and comes off the track and lands in a crowd. Never liked rollercoasters, but after seeing this flick I was really wary of them LOL. Must check this one out again sometime.

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