Before he became the meta-filmmaker’s perfect metaphor for gangster cinema itself, Eddie Constantine did have a regular career, playing regular tough guys on the non-ironic side of the cinematic art. One of his best outings as an action man was SOS Pacific (1959), in which he stars with Richard Attenborough, Eva Bartok and John Gregson.
What makes SOS Pacific watchable is the slightly elevated character structure, with the film being about three different types of men. This triangle of hero (Constantine) anti-hero (Gregson) and villain (Attenborough) ensures a modicum of interest, up until its cliff-hanger atomic bomb ending, which is fine but possibly a little too long as most of the decent action and drama has preceded it.
The mention of the atom bomb is of course timely, being much in people’s minds and dramas from the 1950s right up until the end of the 1980s, and in true disaster movie fashion, the first hour of SOS Pacific doesn’t even engage with the calamity about to unfold. This is all very pleasant therefore, and we get to see Eddie Constantine swaggering about port, doing a bit of rough but loveable independent smuggler stuff, and generally looking tough.
He is however soon chained to a cop and on a plane flight; an early use of this fairly common dramatic setup. The plane is piloted by John Gregson, playing a sort of one-man EasyJet of the south seas – with an alcohol problem. I love the way that heavy drinking heroes in 1950s film always have a very good reason for their charismatic boozing – always a past event haunting them, like a returning cliché. And you can’t but admire what was for decades considered to be drunken acting, a lot of palaver and crashing furniture, wobbly knees and finally passing out. Compare Yul Brynner in Morituri, in which he does a lot of this.
Eddie Constantine however is cinema in its prime, rippling muscles here and there in tight black clothes, and handling fights with ease; and SOS Pacific is certainly an overlooked movie. Richard Attenborough plays a great slime-ball type of character, and given his looks and obvious abilities, it does make you wonder why Eddie Constantine wasn’t more of a star in his day.