The 1961 blockbuster The Devil At 4 O'Clock is one of the first true disaster movies. While there had been other movies in the genre before it, The Poseidon Adventure is considered the first to make the disaster genre popular. This 1972 adventure was based on the novel of the same name and starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!). The story finds the survivors of an ocean liner that's been flipped upside down during a tsunami working together to escape the ship.
The film's large ensemble, tense setpieces, and surprisingly bleak tone made it a huge hit and it grossed close to $100 million. Producer Irwin Allen would subsequently make his name producing disaster epics, including The Towering Inferno - which united icons Paul Newman and Steve McQueen - and The Swarm. He also helmed the poorly received 1979 sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, which starred Michael Caine and Sally Field; in stark contrast to the success of the original, the follow-up grossed a mere $2 million. Allen's blueprint would set the stage for subsequent movies, however, and improvements in special effects led to blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and Skyscraper - which was heavily inspired by The Towering Inferno.
What movie fans may not know is that The Devil At 4 O'Clock was one of the earliest examples of the genre. The film paired Hollywood icons Frank Sinatra (1960's Ocean's 11) and Spencer Tracy for the first and only time. The story finds Tracy as an alcoholic priest working at a leper hospital on a remote Pacific island. Sinatra plays a convict who is put to work at the hospital after making a stop on the island. When the island's volcano starts to erupt without warning, it's up to Tracy and Sinatra to lead the survivors to the evacuation point by 4 o'clock the next day.
The Devil At 4 O'Clock was the most expensive film produced by Columbia at the time and featured some elaborate special effects. The movie contains many of the tropes that would become associated with the genre, including a couple of major stars being surrounded by character actors, a group of survivors overcoming a natural disaster and one or two noble sacrifices. The movie was directed by Marvyn LeRoy (The Wizard Of Oz) and was shot partly on location in Hawaii and soundstages in California.
It seems The Devil At 4 O'Clock wasn't the easiest production, with the egos of Tracy and Sinatra clashing. Tracy preferred to work in the morning and was finished by the afternoon - which is when Sinatra liked to work. This means they were rarely acting alongside each other. Tracy got first billing on the poster though Sinatra was put front and center on the artwork. Tracy wouldn't speak glowingly of his experience with Sinatra, and the two men never worked together again. The Devil At 4 O'Clock is a gem of the genre and laid the seeds for what would follow.