Saturday, December 5, 2020

What a disaster: Climb, baby, climb!


Directed by Jack Smight
Written by Don Ingalls

Spoiler alert: moderate

It is fitting that the two godfathers of the 1970s disaster film, Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, are the only ones, however successful, to have spawned sequels.  And while Beyond the Poseidon Adventure's arrival seven full years (and one big box office flop for Irwin Allen) after its series progenitor suggests a certain desperation, you never get that feeling from Airport's sequel, so even though it was a cash-in, at least it wasn't a flailing one coming at the ass-end of a craze.  Instead, then, let's appreciate the savviness of producers William Frye and Jennings Lang at Universal, who, along with everyone else in Hollywood, looked enviously upon the success of The Poseidon Adventure, but remembered that their studio already had a successful disaster movie of its own, ready to be repeated.  Of course, the word "sequel" perhaps says more than it should.  Rather, what Frye and Jennings did was recognize that what they had was a brand name, married to a basic concept that was sufficiently genericand sufficiently devoid of any especially iconic characters (what's Burt Lancaster's name in Airport again?)that you could just do all sorts of variations on it under the same title, but with different casts, and so long as it was still about airplanes in danger, you essentially couldn't do Airport "wrong."

It's still slightly surprising just how little Airport has to do with its sequel: virtually nobody who even worked on the first film came back for the second, and if there's more overlap in the crews beyond costume designer Edith Head, returning to give us some new (and significantly uglier) airline uniforms, then I missed it.  Meanwhile, the only link in the cast is George Kennedy, creating an extremely loose cinematic universe where the only real rule is that the presence of Joe Patroni is a bad sign for any aircraft in his vicinity.  It's because of this disconnect, I imagineand because it was 1974, and sequels were only just beginning to be the done thingthat Frye and Jennings settled on "Airport 1975" for their title instead of "Airport 2," a naming convention so infrequently seen that the only other franchises I'm aware of that ever used it are the Gold Diggerses and Broadway Melodies back in the 1930s, and that's because they wanted to recall Florenz Ziegfeld's mostly-yearly Follies.  But like Airport, each of those franchises represented thematic continuations, not narrative ones, and were effectively anthology series offering new stories with the same basic substance.  I kind of love that, though, and I love the naming convention itself very much, which is why it's so distressing to me that Airport fucks it up all the way across its franchise, in this instance getting ahead of the current year, like the movie were a new model car, in the next abbreviating it to "Airport '77," before finally ending up with "The Concorde," with the "Airport '79" part in finer print underneath.  Good grief.

But I do respect Frye and Jennings's approach a great deal (Frye would stay on for the second sequel; Jennings would remain the franchise's shepherd straight through to its conclusion).  Even the cheaper-faster 70s sequelmaking ethos that churned Airport 1975 out for a (grumble) October 1974 release isn't visible in the product: if you were asked "which film cost more?" there is no way you'd ever say the first one, even though (according to the published figures, anyway) Airport 1975 was somehow less than one third as expensive.  Airport 1975 is an improvement in many ways, in fact, and the only thing you might miss is that it almost totally lacks Airport's pretense toward being a humane story about people.  On the other hand, it doubles the fuck down on zany-ass comic relief characters facing impending doom on a plane, so if that's what you enjoyed about the first Airport (I'm not sure it's what anybody enjoyed about Airport), this one's got tons of it, and with more famous faces to do it with, from Jerry Stiller to Norman Fell to Erik Estrada to Myrna Loy to Gloria Swanson, making you wonder if Universal got a discount at the Old Hollywood Dowager store if they bought two.  Loy's character's a bit of a callback to Nora Charles, which I approve of.  Swanson, somewhat weirdly, plays herself, but she also gets to turn in the most acceptable performance of the whole crowd, insofar as by playing a merely lightly-caricatured version of herself, Swanson is maybe the sole background character who escapes getting turned into a complete cartoon.

The actual story here, however, is much more focused, and is indeed focused principally on just a couple of characters (plus Patroni, somewhat).  This is exactly what the snaking tracking shot that opens the film tells us, as we follow Chief Stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) through the crowd at Dulles International Airport, and director Jack Smight ushers us through some fairly-complicated (albeit unstressed) scene choreography as she meets her lover of many years, venerable flight instructor Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston), who once again disappoints her by deferring any talk about marriage and commitment for what we expect is the thousandth time.  She leaves him with some low-key recriminations and goes to work, boarding a Boeing 747 bound for Los Angeles, whose passengers and crew include all the aforementioned cartoon characters and more besides, most notably singing nun Sister Ruth (Helen Reddy, gracing us with this film's faintly-embarrassing attempt to do a "Morning After") and sick child Janice Abbott (Linda Blair), who absolutely, positively must get to LA to get her kidney transplant, or she'll die.

For now, Airport 1975 is almost scatterbrained in its impressionistic attempt to capture its crowd of potential disaster victims, hopping through that enormous roster of characters/"characters" in order to showcase the extremely-limited single-trait performances that will be with us throughout, and which will evolve over the course of the film only to the extent that once things get bad they'll get louder.  (With exceptions made, of course, for the ones who get much quieter, because they've been killed or incapacitated, or, in Jerry Stiller's case, because heand I think this is modestly amusinggot real drunk at the terminal, and sleeps through the whole affair.)  So, sure: it's shockingly poorly-written and unnatural, even for filler, with screenwriter Don Ingalls evidently seeing how inhuman and stupid he could make these go-nowhere conversations sound before somebody made him change it, except nobody ever did.  But it's also not too terribly unpleasant, in large part because it's so hilariously bad, particularly the interplay between leering frat boy aircrew and horny stewardesses that could be replaced by characters saying "sex!" repeatedly and still not come off much less authentic, nor even significantly less clever.*  It makes me laugh, anyway, because it's such a bracing reminder of just how little daylight there can be between a "real" disaster movie and the parody version, and there's one little sight gag about two old ladies lustily reading a sex manual that I think shows up in one or other of the Airplane! films without any modification at all.

Okay, that's enough complaining about a disaster movie doing disaster movie things, especially since I can't really work up any passionate opposition to it and at least it's plainly camp on purpose.  It's also not that big a part of a film that is otherwise admirably efficient about getting to the good parts, and these start only about twenty minutes in, at the moment that our 747 and a Beechcraft piloted by Dana Andrews both decide to land at Salt Lake City at the same time.  Smight pumps this for all the suspense it's worth without hitting diminishing returns, and, with a grim sense of inevitability, that Beechcraft plows right into the starboard side of the cockpit, a glancing blow but enough to tear a big hole in the side of the plane and inflict debilitating, potentially deadly injuries upon the entire command crew.  With no pilot but a (barely) functional plane still somehow up in the air, it's now up to Nancy to solve all the pressing problems inherent to keeping this 747 from flying directly into the side of a mountain, with a little help from Murdock and Patroni on the radioor at least for as long as that radio works.

There is, perhaps, a certain extra suspension of disbelief that Airport 1975 demands out of its audience, even for a disaster moviefor starters, I suspect even trying to fly a plane with a hole in the cockpit while it's going 180 knots would be borderline impossible, and the ultimate solutions that Murdock and Patroni provide for Nancy's complete lack of flight training are significantly more ridiculous than the prospect of her just landing the damn plane herselfbut these aren't entirely unreasonable demands, and go more toward putting more thrills (and stuntwork!) into this Airport film, as well opening up the  story to the possibility of a body count that isn't filled out entirely by the initial point of failure.  And whatever else I might have to say about Ingalls's script, it's structured well: Airport 1975 spends the vast majority of its runtime dealing with the fallout of its disaster, not the lead-up.

Smight, whose career before Airport 1975 was almost as anonymous as it gets (and whose only major movie afterward was 1976's Midway), nevertheless does a much-better-than-credible job at marshaling his resources towards the task of making a cracking little airline thriller.  Maybe foremost, a lot of the early, suspenseful stretch is spent at night, which is a small thing that pays off handsomely in Philip H. Lathrop's black-drenched principal photography, and maybe even more handsomely still in Dex Metz's airborne second unit work, which finds some stunningly moody visions of the 747 as a black silhouette moving across the velvety blues of urban twilight and into the indistinct darkness beyond.  That aerial photography becomes an even greater strength as the situation developsleaving aside some monstrously bad rear projection, Airport 1975 looks extraordinarily tactile.  It spends a significant amount of footage on the exterior of that 747 and the surrounding aircraft attempting to assist it, and it makes that whole "suspension of disbelief" thing a great deal easier when we're continually confronted with a very real airplane flying through very real and very deadly-looking mountains.  Sometimes, Airport 1975 is even downright excellent: the fatalistic cross-cutting attending the run-up to the collision is outstanding, and occasions the strongest strains of John Cavacas's very-70s (even "very Airport") score, as it starts spinning around like a out-of-balance turbine and doesn't cease for a good two minutes' worth of nerve-wracking fun.  Plus, Smight knows his movie's as much for kids as anybody, which is why when the 747 comes in for a dangerous landing, red and yellow fire trucks come out, which made me miss being a stupid child who was inordinately fascinated by the fact that they could come in different colors.

As for the figures at the center of it, Kennedy is maybe the only one who gets a really juicy scene, where Patroni speaks by radio to his inevitable spouse-aboard-the-plane (Susan Clark).  (It is interesting, also, that Smight mirrors the tracking shot used to introduce his heroine with Patroni's first scene, which I'm not sure was a useful decision, but, seemingly-intentionally, does visually elevate the newly-promoted operations manager to the level of "co-protagonist," even past Murdock.)  Heston gets by mostly with a series of Hestony poses, doing that trick where he somehow grits his teeth and shouts simultaneously, though even the most B-tier Heston performance tends to find some mythic-feeling anguished humanity in his characters, and Murdock is no exception, even if Heston had a lot more to actually do in his earlier airplane thriller, Skyjacked.

Of course, it's not Murdock's movie, it's Nancy'sand there's an argument I'm willing to hear that Airport 1975 is proof positive that 1974 was too sexist to accept that a woman could have saved the day, though it's also important to remember that allowing her to would've obviated many of the film's cooler/goofier ideas.  It does mitigation, anyway, by giving Nancy all of the heroic moments except for the last, and it's plainly more impressed by her than anyone else.  Black does sterling duty selling just how difficult it was to achieve any of these tentative triumphs through Nancy's fog of fear and panic.  Part of this is Black exploiting the possibilities of her odd looksthere's not a way of saying "every choice Black makes seems intended to make Nancy look of average intelligence at most, and probably rather less" without making it sound like a personal attack on the actor, but I mean it as compliment of her technique, and there are a whole lot of slackjawed, uncomprehending expressions on Nancy, the fictional character, that I doubt Karen Black, the actual human, typically wore in her daily life.  It's not a deep performance, but it does the job, emphasizing how ill-equipped Nancy is for the crisis thrust upon her, which is an endless source of great thriller tension.  Plus, for once, it's nice to get a movie hero who isn't a secret genius full of inexhaustible reserves of grit and moxie, and who honestly is just an everyday jane who rises to the occasion anyway.

Ultimately, Airport 1975 is maybe not too exceptional within the grander mosaic of 70s disaster cinemait's probably remembered best just for being named "Airport."  But besides simply being a much tighter thriller than the original, it's also just a really solid piece of disaster film craft overall, and any movie that simply works as well as this one does should never go overlooked.

Score: 7/10

*Apropos of absolutely nothing but I've got to mention it, there was a casting assistant on Airport 1975 and fellow 1974 Universal disaster picture Earthquake namedI shit you not"Grady Rape."

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