Directed by Jerry Jameson
Written by H.A.L. Craig, Charles Keunstle, Michael Scheff, and David Spector
If the Airport franchise is the warm porridge of disaster cinema, then Airport '77 is almost certainly the warmest. I'm only even hedging because I've not yet seen The Concorde: Airport '79, a film that sounds pretty bad and nobody's ever said one nice thing about, and a four-film franchise that somehow escalated in quality with every single installment strikes me as too much of a miracle to be possible. Yet this isn't to deny what a miracle this Airport already is, for Airport '77 (gratifyingly released in 1977, unlike 1974's Airport 1975) freshens up a formula that, given its stark limitations, you'd never think could surprise you at all, let alone twice in a row. It's perplexing to find that it isn't everyone's favorite Airport, and the readiest explanation for that is 1)normal people don't have a favorite Airport and 2)most opinions about Airport '77 were formed in 1977, and by folks with a lot less patience than me for an anthology series about airplanes in trouble and the attendant two-dimensional melodramas of their passengers and crew. That's the way it is, but Airport '77 is so replete with advantages over its two predecessors that I don't see how any quote-unquote "objective" appraisal of the things could lead to any other conclusion.
The biggest of those advantages is that Airport '77 is the first (presumably only) Airport to truly, genuinely figure out how to get a whole feature's worth of well-paced and frequently-punctuated disaster movie danger out of an airplane crash, which by definition would tend to happen all at once if it happened at all—and since that would almost invariably kill everybody, you know going in that it almost certainly won't. But there are exceptions to every rule, even if, infamously, Airport '77 achieves its exceptional status mainly by deciding the franchise it's actually extending is The Poseidon Adventure's. Still, I admire the hell out of the lateral thinking involved in H.A.L. Craig and Charles Keunstle's story (Michael Scheff and David Spector wrote the script).
So: what we have instead of a commercial airliner this time is a new Boeing 747 reconfigured by its obscenely wealthy owner, Philip Stevens (Jimmy Stewart), to take VIPs to their destinations in splendiforous style. (It has, for example, a laserdisc player. I hadn't realized those even existed yet, and indeed it would not be until the following year that they were actually marketed to the public—by, in what I'm sure is a huge coincidence, Universal's own parent company, MCA. For product placement, it could be better: the "video" it produces relies on an effects shot.) In any event, Stevens's plane has presently been tasked to deliver his chosen guests and a cargo hold full of artistic treasures to his doorstep in Palm Beach; for Stevens has, as twilight approaches, devoted himself to rededicating his family's seaside mansion as a museum. Flying this modern marvel is Stevens's pilot, Ron Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), and aboard are a mix of employees (most importantly Brenda Vaccarro's Eve, an executive in Stevens's organization as well as Gallagher's longtime girlfriend), family (Pamela Bellwood and Anthony Battaglia as Stevens's daughter and grandson), important friends (like Christopher Lee's scientist-industrialist husband, Lee Grant's dissolute, unhappy wife, Joseph Cotten's art dealer, and Olivia de Havilland and Maidie Norman's rich dowagers), and the genuinely random (a mom and daughter who won a contest, evidently so there could be a second small kid aboard who could spend the back half of the movie in a notionally nerve-wracking coma, though like all disaster films not named Jaws, Airport '77 would never have the guts).
Unbeknowst to them, but knowst to us from the first few minutes of the film onward, there's a plot afoot to heist all that priceless art, and a gang of thieves have infiltrated the plane's support staff by way of a whole complicated series of false identities, which director Jerry Jameson takes us through during his film's opening sequence by way of a fair amount of legitimately-compellingly, gratifyingly-oblique visual storytelling that, unfortunately, comes off nonetheless as a series of quick-change vignettes that wouldn't be totally out of place in a heist film parody. (Mostly a television stalwart, and experienced with the genre thanks to small-screen disaster films like Heatwave!, Jameson is almost certainly best known for the semi-mythical theatrical boondoggle of Raise the Titanic—watch this space.)
The important part, anyway, is that they've roped in co-pilot Chambers (Robert Foxworth), and at the appointed time the conspirators unleash a dose of knockout gas into the pressurized cabin, while Chambers dives the plane below the coastal radar net and changes course toward a Caribbean rendezvous at an abandoned WWII airbase that, the film shrugs, apparently still has a well-maintained runway a minimum of 7000 feet long, since they intend to land a 747 there. But as Chambers practically skims the waves of the Bermuda Triangle, they meet an unanticipated obstacle—an offshore oil rig that appears suddenly before them out of the fog. When Chambers clips the wing on its mast, it's all he can do to make a water landing with the ship intact. The crash kills all of Chambers's friends, and jars everyone else awake, but not in time to do anything useful about the situation as the 747 sinks and everyone still alive finds themselves buried under ten fathoms of water. Now, it's up to Gallagher to lead his passengers and crew to rescue, somehow alerting the U.S. Navy and the Airport films' specter of death, Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), that they're alive down here, hundreds of miles off course, underwater, and only a few hours away from either suffocating when their air runs out, or just drowning outright when the plane's fuselage finally gives.
For starters, it's worth remarking that Airport '77 has, arguably, the single most "all-star" cast in its entire genre, and, by the same token, arguably the best—besides Stewart, Lemmon, de Havilland, Lee, and Cotten, the movie even has M. Emmet Walsh running around, as a doctor (of veterinary medicine, in an amusing touch, but don't tell anyone). Obviously, this matters only very, very marginally: I mean, Stewart deploys his persona in appealing ways (he makes his billionaire seem like an everyman, jibing with a description from his estranged daughter that he doesn't even realize how domineering he can be), but he's also a near-complete non-factor, necessarily disconnected from the entire rest of the major cast, and if Stevens wasn't in the movie at all it's hard to claim you'd notice anything was missing. Lemmon gets plenty to do, at least; his irritated (shall we say grumpy?) pilot who barely manages to keep his cool by resorting to sarcasm and annoyed sighs makes for a very solid disaster movie protagonist.
The most important thing about that cast, then, is just how old it makes this movie: this is true of the Airports in general, even 70s disaster flicks in general, but despite a smattering of younger characters (who draw much less attention), Airport '77 really does feel well on the other side of middle age, with its little character arcs tending toward ideas of renewal after half a lifetime or more of making mistakes, or else repeating those mistakes till you die. Airport '77's characters are closer to dying than usual, but that doesn't necessarily make those lives less worth living, is the point. It won't surprise you that the personal melodramas are, ultimately, mostly texture, but even Grant's drunken harpy of a wife—presumably, like the actor, in her 50s, even if she looks more like an extremely hot 34—finds a bit of humanity in Grant's performance (albeit not always in the material, which sometimes veers camp), especially in the early going; even as she succumbs to crazed grief there are little grace notes, like fixing her makeup while in shock, that really work. (I adore her playful spin on a line to her husband's assistant with whom she'd previously had an affair—"who else have I got to blackmail? I don't get to fool around that much"—even if this plot thread never comes up again.) The other benefit of a cast stacked this tall in favor of Old Hollywood luminaries is that it more-or-less obviates any designated comic relief—it's not a humorless film (a droll and unstressed set decoration gag early on has all the boxes containing Stevens's Picassos and the like marked "KEEP DRY"), but it entirely repudiates the eye-rolling zaniness that was already there in incipient form in Airport and really took over the whole first act in 1975. This film's characters might mostly just be sketches of human personalities, but there's not a single one whose only possible description is "live-action cartoon." In turn, this means its Poseidonesque visceral intensities have a real chance of actually landing.
And there is a surprising amount of such intensities, which is where the innovation lies, since, as I mentioned earlier, this Airport actually crashes the fucking plane. The prior two films had never lacked nice, stolid craft, but Jameson puts this one together very well, dividing its pair of acts very cleanly between the novel and enjoyable heist suspense of the first half and the post-crash desperation of the second, the two sections separated by a reasonably gnarly (even somewhat bloody) collage of bodies getting battered around. He's helped along by what I'm sure is the franchise's best score, courtesy John Cavacas, returning from 1975 and outdoing himself with a dense and insistent collection of plaintive horns, anxious strings, and determined percussion, and in the "heist" themes especially, synthesized distortion that sounds like electric farts—which I mean in an appropriately evocative way. But despite being its own thing, it never loses that distinctive "Airport sound" as coined by Alfred Newman back in 1970, the connection always being present, but at its most noticeable in the weary, romantic motifs Cavacas incorporates. (On the other hand, there's bigshot costume designer and Airport franchise veteran Edith Head, who was nominated for an Oscar for this for no good Goddamn reason; I like Grant's dress, I suppose, but the closest to even modestly interesting costume design this gets is that Stevens's daughter and Eve have basically the same outfit, which I guess is supposed to imply something about how his corporation has usurped his child's place in his life. If this was Head's idea it is about five times too intellectual for this movie and it just looks like they've blundered into both wearing a beige jacket to the party.)
As for Jameson's own contributions, Airport '77 comes off pretty drumtight; it flows extraordinarily well with a sense of urgency even before the plane crashes. Jameson's pair of editors, Robert Watts and J. Terry Williams, impose some very smart cutting on the thing, pretty much throughout, with some frame-perfect choices when the plane begins to leak, and even some cheekily clever little transitions, like when the doctor demands a bottle of whiskey for a patient and we cut to Grant's inebriated Mrs. Wallace, alone and isolated in the frame; they're given an obvious helping hand by Cavacas's music, but Watts and Williams even manage to do credibly thrilling work with the underwater stunt sequences, so often the bane of engaging cinema. Meanwhile, cinematographers Philip Lathrop and Rexford Metz (or one or the other—given Airport '77's construction, I wouldn't assume they actually worked together) find a nicely gloomy atmosphere with the 747's emergency lighting without pushing that too far into obscurity. It is not, as was 1975, chock full of great second-unit aerial photography, but that's probably because Jameson and producers Jennings Lang and William Frye elected to simply go with modelwork for this Airport's airliner—wisely enough since they knew that, eventually, they were going to arrive at a big model of a 747 at the bottom of a swimming pool anyway. It is, even so, significantly more persuasive and expensive modelwork (and, when not persuasive and expensive, then at least charming and expensive) than the original Airport's comparatively crappy effects. A lot of real world hardware gets a workout nonetheless, thanks to the participation of the USS Cayuga and other military assets in exchange for the film's affirming at the start of the closing credits that the US Navy's rescue capabilities are very real and very awesome.
The only thing that's really, acutely wrong with Airport '77, then, and the main reason I don't rate it even higher than I do, is that it is basically two separate movies, and as tense and enjoyable as its first phase definitely is, that heist plot is so nakedly instrumental, with no goal besides putting half of an entertaining movie out in front of the real movie, which is about crashing a 747 into the ocean and which could've been accomplished by any number of other means. Chambers might survive that crash (which you'd think could be mined for a whole major subplot of its own), but any possible suspense inherent to his survival is given up instantly, inasmuch as Gallagher figures out his co-pilot's role in the caper before Chambers even regains consciousness. Otherwise, literally nothing about Airport '77's foray into absurd supercrime informs anything that comes after the crash, which is understandable—Airport '77 clearly has other priorities—but also feels like a missed opportunity. (Maybe that opportunity is explored in its ridiculous TV cut, which had its 113 minute runtime extended by over an hour with outtakes and new footage, but even leaving aside its unavailability, no, thank you.)
The other problem, which is endemic to the genre but a little rankling anyway, is that it marks out its victims a little too clearly. It doesn't completely lack the nihilistic flavor that makes (for example) The Poseidon Adventure so good—I'm impressed by how matter-of-factly it executes the blind piano player (Tom Sullivan, natch) who sings this movie's halfway-decent go at "A Morning After," the ironically-named "Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder"—but it isn't as random as one may prefer, and imposes too much screenwriters' judgment when, in the best disaster movies, God hates everybody equally. Airport '77 is still probably the most fun an Airport movie could be. It's probably the peak of the franchise as cinema, whether you like that term in connection with disaster flicks or not. But hey, we'll see what happens when it goes supersonic in '79.