The Devil at 4 O'Clock
Original cinema poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay by Liam O'Brien
Based on The Devil at 4 O'Clock
1959 novel 
by Max Catto
Starring Spencer Tracy
Frank Sinatra
Music by George Duning
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Edited by Charles Nelson
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • October 18, 1961 (1961-10-18) (US)
Running time 126 min.
Language English
Budget $5,721,786[1]
Box office $4,550,000[1]

The Devil at 4 O'Clock is a 1961 American disaster film, starring Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Based on a 1959 novel with the same title by British writer Max Catto, the film was a precursor to the disaster films of the 1970s, such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno.


On the fictional Pacific island of Talua in French Polynesia, some 500 miles from Tahiti, Father Doonan (Spencer Tracy), has been relieved of his duties by Father Perreau (Kerwin Mathews). Father Doonan has fallen out of favor with the island's residents because he stumbled on the island's carefully hidden secret : Hansen's Disease (leprosy) among the children of the islands. He built a hospital for the children by the island's volcano.

Meanwhile, three convicts - Harry (Frank Sinatra), Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) and Marcel (Gregoire Aslan) - en route for Tahiti, make an unexpected stop on the island, and they are put to work at the leper hospital. All is seemingly normal until the island's volcano begins to erupt and the Governor (Alexander Scourby) orders an evacuation. The governor cannot reach the freighter that has just left and plans to evacuate the island with one seaplane and a schooner.

The children are still on the slope of the volcano in the hospital and Father Doonan is desperate to rescue them. When the freighter suddenly appears back at the island, Father Doonan convinces the governor to drop some men to rescue the children. The schooner agrees to wait until 4:00 PM the next day for them before he has to leave because of the tides.

In the hope of getting their sentences commuted, the convicts agree to parachute to the hospital with Father Doonan to rescue the children and staff. They face fire, lava, and earthquakes as time runs out; all must work together if any are to survive.

Eventually most of the children and the staff are rescued and board the schooner. Prisoner Marcel drowns in a mud pit. Charlie is fatally hurt when the bridge he is holding up collapses and fatally injures him, after everyone else is safely across. Father Doonan stays with him. Harry sees the children and staff to the schooner and goes back to wait with his friends. He is trapped on one side of the chasm while Father Doonan and Charlie are on the other side. Father Doonan gives Charlie the last rites when he dies and begins to ask for forgiveness for his sins as the entire island explodes (à la Krakatoa) in a volcanic paroxysm.



Shot on location in Hawaii and California; a "volcano" had to be specially built on farmland outside of Fallbrook, California, which was detonated using almost a ton of explosives. The explosion nearly killed the helicopter pilot and camera man who were filming it. The effects were considered so good that they have been re-used as stock footage over the years.

Because of Tracy's demand of top billing in any movie he starred in, Sinatra ceded top-billing in order to secure Tracy for the film. The film was the most expensive that Columbia Pictures had ever made.[1]

The film's hazardous walk to the other side of the island by a group of people trapped by the volcano, was largely copied in the 1980 volcano disaster film When Time Ran Out.

Critical reception

Among mostly good, if not glowing reviews, Variety commented on the "exceptional special effects" and praised the acting, noting that "Tracy delivers one of his more colorful portrayals in his hard-drinking cleric who has lost faith in his God, walloping over a character which sparks entire action of film. Sinatra's role, first-class but minor in comparison, is overshadowed in interest by Aslan, one of the convicts in a stealing part who lightens some of the more dramatic action."[2]

NME would say that "Although slightly sentimental, the films comes off well thanks to messrs Tracy and Sinatra."


  1. ^ a b c James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Alfred Knopf, 2011 p797-798
  2. ^ The Devil at 4 O'ClockVariety, December 31, 1960: Linked 2012-10-07

External links