Directed by Georg Fenady
Written by Adrian Spies
It's easy to lose track of, because it's ultimately a bad movie with the kind of premise that would seem to foreclose the possibility of even being watchable—"what if we made a disaster movie about seven people stuck in a malfunctioning tram on an alpine lift, and it's nineteen minutes longer than The Godfather?"—but Hanging By a Thread, Irwin Allen's third made-for-TV production for Warner Bros. Television, is actually a modestly experimental take on the genre as it stood at the end of 1970s. For starters, it was a two-night event, which demanded a certain expansion of the basic material of "folks trapped in a tram." Disaster films almost invariably require resorting to stereotyped template; but that runtime obliged screenwriter Adrian Spies to attempt to fully fill all his templates out, for want of noises between the commercial breaks, if nothing else. And because 196 minutes is a really long time, he also throws in a thriller about one of his characters being hunted by the corrupt arms manufacturer he used to work for. (That's not the experimental part.)
But there's the kernel of the idea, maybe never quite consciously-pursued, that if disaster movies are always to a large degree interpersonal melodramas thrown into sharp relief by the advent of some deadly peril, then why shouldn't there be a disaster movie that goes full-tilt at the chamber drama, caging a bunch of mutually-loathing characters in a small space with nothing to do but stew in the memories of each other's sins? Hanging By a Thread is structured accordingly, utilizing that very-long runtime and frequent flashbacks to deliver enormous chunks of backstory for each of its principals, revealing what a bunch of pathetic scum most of them are. Flashbacks are already a rarity in the genre, and this kind of curdled drama even more; it begins to resemble No Exit more than The Poseidon Adventure, and while even the artiest version of this screenplay probably couldn't ultimately end "oh, they're already dead and in hell," a pruned version plausibly could. For a shockingly long time, this actually pays off: for a good two hours, Hanging By a Thread's combo of soap opera, paranoid thriller, and disaster movie procedural is slightly awe-inspiring, at least judged on the curve set by Allen's previous TV efforts, Flood and Fire, which couldn't even fill out 97 minutes without getting stale. Plus, you'd assume that Spies and director Georg Fenady still have plenty of good stuff left, because at two hours, we still haven't solved the problem of how they get down without going "splat."
And then it winds up worse than either of its predecessors anyway, possibly the worst disaster movie we've surveyed. Other than The Cassandra Crossing, it's the keenest betrayal we've seen so far, perpetrated by a movie that spends a long time earning your attention and purring along pretty well before just spiraling out into nothingness in its third act. Or fourth act? Well, it's not a screenplay that has "acts."
Our victims arrive together, presently numbering six. These are the members of the self-styled "Uptowners Club," a collection of the richest richies in whatever suburb these people live in. They've been gathered here at the behest of the owner of this little tourist attraction, Alan Durant (Bert Convy), to celebrate the culmination of his years of sad pining over Ellen Craig (Donna Mills), who has, in the past several months, gotten a divorce and finally agreed to marry him, though you win no points for guessing that for Ellen this is a complete capitulation and she's settling for the first guy to show up. Along with them come their likewise-coupled friends, Sue and Jim Grainger (Patty Duke and Burr DeBenning) and Eddie and Anita Minton (Oliver Clark and Joyce Bulifant), as well as Ellen's son Tommy (Michael Sharrett). Tommy complains that his dad's not here, though of course he isn't: Paul Craig (Sam Groom) walked out on them ages ago.
But who shows up after all, but Paul—for as we know, though Ellen doesn't, Paul's vanishing act wasn't a willful abandonment, but an act of patriotism, as Paul's been stowed away in various safehouses for months by his FBI handler Mitchell (Roger Perry), marked for death thanks to his whistleblowing, and presently preparing to testify and afterwards start a new life in witness protection. Mitchell, the softie, has permitted Paul to see his wife and son one last time, though God knows why they think this isn't fundamentally shitty and selfish, and wouldn't just be re-traumatizing even if it all went according to plan. Nevertheless, Paul is welcomed, and, to his credit, he wishes Ellen and Alan luck, joining them on their trip up the mountain. The catch is that Alan's been ignoring warnings of summer lightning all day, and one such bolt strikes the tram while they're in it, fusing it in place while damaging the cable. It's not an immediate death sentence, but they don't have long—eventually that cable is going to snap and send them plummeting to the earth below, and the high winds that the storms have kicked up are going to make air rescue awfully difficult. So they wait to see whether they live or die, occasionally making efforts to ameliorate their situation; but mostly they use their potential last hours on Earth as an excuse to vent all their long-suppressed feelings at each other.
The good news is that this is intercut fairly well. Despite the shift in emphasis, there's never too long in between disaster movie beats, some of which are entirely reasonable (for example, Paul, an engineer, takes point on solving the problem of a dangerous and awkward tilt) and some of which are pretty contrived (one of these jokers somehow sets himself on fire). But the overriding danger, combined with the punchiness of the flashbacks—I don't think even one lasts longer than five minutes, and each little scenelet gets immediately to its "point"—keeps Hanging By a Thread from getting boring for much longer than you'd expect it to.
They're not perfectly done, even so: leaving aside whether some of these characters' backstories are more interesting than others (the Graingers' backstory is a perfunctory failed marriage with nothing special to recommend it), they don't all feel of a piece. Perspective can get addled across the flashbacks, some of them taking on a more-or-less objective point-of-view that can't be pinned down to any one character (I think some depart from our principals altogether, just to make sure we get important plot information), while one, and only one, drags us all the way back to childhood. But for the most part they're okay, and, hell, I even like the specificity that Alan's childhood flashback brings, in that he was a weird kid whose favorite thing in the world was this very tram, so when his mom left, his dad bought it for him to cheer him up. Eventually we get intimations of a conspiracy, leaving us to wonder what crime these jerks committed. So for a good long while the very worst thing about Haniging By a Thread is either that the only reason Paul hasn't just fucking told his wife he's a whistleblower is so the character relationships can shake out the way they do, or merely that Spies named two of the points on his love triangle "Alan" and "Ellen," never dreaming that every last actor in the film would pronounce these words identically.
It eventually gets around to putting its nuclear family back together, but thanks to being four-hours-with-commercials, it's required to sit with its scenario, delaying any of its more predictable turns; after a while, that delay starts looking a lot more like nuance, rather than just padding, maybe even a screenwriter attempting something humane. It even starts to feel that way, thanks to a fairly game cast, not to mention a central romantic triangle that's defined in both the script and Mills's, Groom's, and Convy's performances more by broken sadness than by jealousy, rivalry, or resentment. Could this be a disaster movie that asks you to accept that sometimes parents get divorced, and get remarried, and that's okay? It could be; and that's an impression seemingly confirmed when Alan's own flaws are showcased in a scene that also indicates he has guts, when he owns up to carrying a concealed flask of booze—even though he's "quit drinking"—in order to offer chemical comfort to a suffering friend. But of course, it's noticeable that he has to be prodded into doing this by Paul.
And eventually this will become The Paul Show; eventually it becomes obvious that Spies doesn't really want Alan to be in the movie anymore. There's no dramatic inflection point to explain this, and Fenady might have forgotten he didn't film one, because at some point he starts blocking Mills and Groom to constantly touch and grope each other like they're a confirmed couple again, relegating Convy to sitting in the corner. Simultaneously, the Craigs become more-or-less sealed off in their own moral universe and pretty much their own separate narrative, forbidden from participating in any further backstory, which winds up being pretty underwhelming in any case: with a defter touch I think it could have worked—these are people who've done bad things without necessarily being bad people—and, I know, it's not the crime, but the cover-up, but the bad thing they did just isn't that bad. Indeed, it's so forgivable that the wronged party only ever remembers not to forgive her husband, while at the end she scurries off with one of his co-conspirators so she can sit by the sickbed of another.
That leaves the disaster movie (this is a disaster movie, right?) in a bad place, too. There's only one useful person in the entire film, which could be descriptively retitled Paul and the Six Total Loads, though I don't think Spies ever reckoned with how unlikeable Paul actually is (part of it's Groom's increasingly smug and superior performance, though he may only seem this way because he's surrounded by characters who are expressly worthless). There's a recklessness to Paul's self-righteousness that could have been explored, and isn't. It is, in fact, actively written-around, so Paul isn't required to make choices, and the choices he has made aren't even important: the entire paranoid thriller aspect isn't even a factor except in its own C-plot, which begins and ends entirely on the ground, and that is immensely frustrating because everything about this scenario demands that Paul's extrinsic plot and the disaster movie must, at some point, intersect. It's flabbergasting that they don't, even when the elements (a sniper heading up the mountain; a cable that could snap at any moment and cover up the assassination) are right-fucking-there to be combined. I don't believe it ever dawns on Ellen that her husband put her and her son in mortal danger, and never warned them.
Now, it was never great anyway: it looks even cheaper than it was, with a hugely variable quality to its ground-based scenes (the introductory scene at the tram's information center, a lazily-dressed set that barely extends to the edges of a TV frame, looks like the camera set-up for a contemporary talk show only it's been done poorly) and there are suggestions of real chintziness as early as the initial point of failure, when the tram "stops" in a held frame. Fenady tries to hide the shift from "location footage" to "pure tram set" in a commercial break, though it's not fooling anybody when we somehow go immediately from broad daylight to pitch black nighttime without even the effort of a fake sunset to ease you into it. The tram set is actually pretty alright (life-sized, and I surmise it must've been an exterior set shot at night); the action, likewise, can be put together with noticeable suspense. But even by the hour mark, forget about two, Fenady's largely given up trying new things and doesn't even exhaust the extremely-limited possibilities of his set; on the rare occasion that the camera angle rises above the tram or cables, it's like a foreign language, so little is it part of this film's grammar. (I imagine they didn't have a tall enough crane, or else didn't want to accidentally capture the not-very-far-away ground.)
There's never much feeling that the words "Irwin Allen production" meant something here, then. At least there's a lot of dangerous-looking stunt helicopter flying where the pilot pretends to be buffeted by winds, though there's a dearth of body count stacking. That's not the big problem. The big problem is the systematic dissipation of every possible point of continued interest. It leaves us with a bloated behemoth that slowly but surely reveals that everything you thought might be ambitious about it was, in truth, just three hours of filler.