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MASTERS OF DISASTER – TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976)

Masters Of Disaster returns and this time Dawn Dabell examines Two-Minute Warning (1976) starring Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes.

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Theatrical poster for Two-Minute Warning (1976)

This week Masters Of Disaster returns with a review of Two-Minute Warning (1976) starring Charlton Heston, John Cassavetes, Gene Rowlands, Jack Klugman and Beau Bridges. In light of the spate of terrorist (and in some cases non-terrorist) related shootings which have taken place around the world over recent weeks, we debated whether to run a film of this type at this time. In the end, we decided to go with it as our selection, as in some ways the film is arguably more timely and prescient than it’s ever been.
A faceless sniper (Warren Miller) randomly shoots a cyclist from a hotel balcony, before getting in his car and driving across L.A. towards the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where an end-of-season contest between football teams from L.A and Baltimore is soon to take place before a crowd of 90,000 spectators.
We are introduced to various members of the crowd – Steve and Janet (David Janssen and Gena Rowlands), an unmarried couple with a volatile relationship; Lucy (Marilyn Hassett), a woman with little interest or understanding of the sport who is attending the game on a date; Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman), a debt-ridden gambler who needs to win big to pay off pressing Mob debts; a Catholic priest (Mitchell Ryan) who is a close friend of one of the quarterbacks; an elderly pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon) and his young female accomplice (Juli Bridges); and a family with financial and relationship problems since the father, Mike Ramsay (Beau Bridges), has lost his job.

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Steve and Janet (David Janssen and Gena Rowlands) bickering spectators soon to be caught in a cross-fire in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

The sniper takes up position on a tower above the scoreboard in the stadium. He is inadvertently spotted by the TV cameras on the Blimp once the game in underway, and the stadium manager Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam) is made aware of the situation. Unsure of the gunman’s intentions or motivations, McKeever calls in L.A. cop Peter Holly (Charlton Heston) who, in turn, decides to call for help from the SWAT division headed by Chris Button (John Cassavetes).
The deal is simple: Holly will remain in charge of the situation unless the gunman starts shooting at civilians. Or, if the gunman is still in position as the game enters its final two minutes, and still poses a threat to the spectators by this point, responsibility will be handed over to the SWAT team to take him out.
But can they prevent a bloodbath or, even worse, an ensuing stampede of panic if the shooter starts blasting? The clock ticks down and the stakes heighten with every passing second…
The film takes its name from the NFL term ‘two-minute warning’, which is sounded when only two minutes of play remain on the clock towards the end of each half. In the context of the film, this two-minute warning is an important moment; as explained above, it signifies the moment when the police hand over control to the SWAT team. It is in this moment that all hell breaks loose.

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The priest (Mitchell Ryan) and the gambler (Jack Klugman) enjoying the game before all hell breaks loose in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

The ending of Two-Minute Warning is extremely (and surprisingly) downbeat. I have to admit that I sat through the film expecting the police to stop the sniper before he fired a shot, or at least before he is able to shoot many innocent members of the public, but I was completely wrong. I didn’t expect the finale to be as chaotic and full of death and carnage as it is. After the initial (random) shooting of the cyclist, which takes place in the film’s opening moments, the majority of the film is spent introducing us to characters who will be involved in one way or the other in the climactic violence, as well as building tension in preparation for the moment the ‘two-minute warning’ arrives. Many viewers will be surprised by the sheer amount of loss-of-life taking place before the sniper is finally brought under control by the police and SWAT team. The tension and patient build-up certainly pays dividends in the final moments… the climax is truly a powerful and shocking sequence.
The film is graced with an all-star cast, as was the case with many disaster movies from the 70s. Here the various stars all put in decent performances as one would expect from such well-regarded actors and actresses. Picking someone who stands out above the others is no easy task – Heston and Cassavetes are perhaps strongest among a strong bunch, squaring up to each other as men with vehemently different opinions about how to achieve the same goal.

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Holly (Charlton Heston), Button (John Cassavetes) and McKeever (Martin Balsam) debate their options as time runs out in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

A key device used throughout is that the audience never actually see the sniper’s face: we are given glimpses of the side of his face and his lower body, even his hands while he drives his car, but we never see what he actually looks like. He is never made ‘human’ to us – whenever he is on screen, we see things either from long distance or from his own POV. All we know for sure is that he is purely dangerous. As well as him remaining a faceless threat, viewers are never given a reason for his actions. He may have his motives but we never learn of them… a truly terrifying device which is as effective as it is disturbing.
A totally re-edited version of Two-Minute Warning was made, as the original theatrical release was considered too violent for TV (plus the lack of any motive for the sniper’s killings proved to be a sticking point for the television network NBC, who were going to show the feature a few years after its theatrical run). The film made people feel uncomfortable: the idea that someone would shoot people without reason, no explanation being offered to the audience to explain – or at least help us understand – his actions. As a result, for the TV version a whole subplot was added and new footage was shot, with the new scenes spliced in to replace much original footage. These scenes depicted a heist which is taking place in a neighbouring building, with the sniper being used as a decoy to keep the police and the SWAT team busy while the criminals get away with their robbery. I’ve never seen the TV edit of the film so can’t comment on the continuity between the different footage. On the Imdb, it is noted that Heston’s hair is significantly different in colour in the newer footage (he returned to shoot several scenes for the tamer TV version). Overall the theatrical version is seen less often, but is considered far superior.

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The SWAT team are given their instructions in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

Although the film is almost forty years old, it’s frightening to reflect just how relevant it is in today’s violent society. At the time of the film’s release, the idea of someone hiding somewhere with a rifle and shooting people at random wouldn’t have seemed particularly likely or believable to the majority of viewers (this was, after all, something sensationalised and OTT which only really happened at the movies). Usually the audience would be presented with a motive – no matter how small or trivial – for the shooter’s bloodthirsty actions, tying things off neatly so that we can all go away understanding what makes the madman want to act the way he does.
A film like this would have aimed to be both entertaining and shocking, but the events depicted would be seen as a gimmick, the foundation blocks for a tense thriller, as opposed to something likely to happen with any regularity in the real world. These days, the idea of someone shooting at a crowd of people for no apparent reason is not so far-fetched. Around the world, we too frequently hear about such vicious and senseless attacks. In this past year alone, there have been hundreds of random shootings and dozens of politically/religiously-motivated terrorist attacks.

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Alternative theatrical poster for Two-Minute Warning (1976)

Watching Two-Minute Warning nowadays, it remains a film which packs a real punch but, unfortunately, it’s also a film where viewers recognise a scenario which has become all-too-real and scarily believable. If you are a fan of the 70s disaster cycle or the film’s stars, make sure to add this one to your list. But you may be surprised just how much this film seems like a forewarning of what’s to come, not to mention how downbeat it ends (especially in the more graphic theatrical version).
MoM Rating: 6/10

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