Sunday, April 25, 2021

What a disaster: The devil with that report


Directed by Earl Bellamy
Written by Dan Ingalls

Spoiler alert: moderate

Amongst the lesser distinctions of the cinema of the 1970s, the decade was also host to the Golden Age of the TV Movie.  Rarely, this meant a Duel, and it worked out wonderfully; sometimes it meant a Someone's Watching Me!, and you could have a good time with it; sometimes it meant Something Evil or Elvis, and it wasn't worth the electromagnetic waves it was aired on.  Frequently, because the 70s were also the decade of the disaster film, it meant something like today's subject, Flood, and while it's no surprise that these two trends combined, when I drafted my plan for this retrospective, I didn't say to myself, "I need to review Ben Murphy in Heatwave.  The world demands it!"  Speaking frankly, the world clearly doesn't demand any of it.  But I was moved to expand the project slightly anyway, for while Flood was not the first and certainly not the last made-for-TV disaster flick, I had hoped it could serve as a worthy champion for the genre on the small screen, for it had something going for it that none of its broadcast predecessors had had.  That something was Irwin Allen.

Allen was no stranger to TV, of course; his theatrical efforts get the attention, but arguably Allen's real life's work was in television, and after the early 1960s, he was never absent from some TV production or another for very long.  His usual genre was science fiction, and even if most of his efforts wouldn't be recognizable to anybody under 60, at least Lost In Space managed an enduring pop cultural half-life.  Fresh off the phenomenal successes that had made him the Master of Disaster, however, when Allen's increasingly-fractious relationship with 20th Century Fox led to him decamping to Warner Bros., Warners suggested that Allen bring his touch to a series of smaller-scale disaster films that he would produce for television.  Allen was eager enough; the first two were, I believe, part of an actual package contract; titled Flood and Fire respectively, they reflected the elemental perils he'd already made a quarter of a billion dollars with on the big screen.  Ultimately, between 1976 and 1979, he would produce fully five TV movies for Warner Bros. Television in fulfillment of their content deal with NBC.  On the strength of the Allen legacywhich it bears repeating rests pretty much entirely upon just The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering InfernoI decided it was theoretically possible it wouldn't be a waste of money to acquire them all.

Flood was the first of these films to be aired, on November 24, 1976.  (It is often referred to as Flood!, with the exclamation mark, but whether it was sold that way in 1976 or not, the film's title card bears no evidence that the movie should be called anything other than plain, punctuation-free Flood.)  It is, unfortunately, not a mighty justification of faith.  The nicest thing to say is that Flood does no great dishonor to a form that, admittedly, only had a little honor in the first place.  But by no means does it transcend its medium, and in fact sinks precisely to its medium's level, the main and maybe the only reason that Flood doesn't quite manage to be "a good movie" being the low-ambition realities behind its creation.  It wasand it showsmade but to occupy a two hour programming block on a Wednesday night, only good enough to keep you from changing the channel, in an era where there were just three channels.  That's in stark contrast with its big siblings, which had to sell millions of theater tickets on the basis of being too fucking awesome to miss.  It's almost a good movie, though.  For the majority of its runtime I wouldn't even qualify that: it is a good movie.  It's just that a disaster movie should never be at its best in its disaster's lead-up, and that lead-up should pay off significantly better than Flood's does, especially with the Allen brand attached.

So: we begin in Brownsville, the quintessential Oregonian small town, whose livelihood depends crucially on the tourism generated by its picturesque man-made lake and the famous fishing opportunities it provides.  One such man yoked to the tourist trade is helicopter pilot Steve Brannigan (Robert Culp), who makes his bones providing convenient transportation to wealthy out-of-towners, such as his present client, a prickly Briton who expects a lake stocked to the gills, so to speak, with all the fish he can catch.  Played by Roddy McDowall, he is, indeed, exemplary of everything that turns out to be wrong with Flood: no doubt only in the movie in the first place because of his preexisting relationship with the producer, and perhaps to remind you of how gosh-darn great The Poseidon Adventure was, McDowall's cameo writes a check for Allen that his movie's ass has no intention of cashing.  For McDowall never shows up againnot even to die.  That's a pity, too, because he's giving a pretty great one-scene performance as the kind of domineering twerp that this town bends and scrapes for, at the expense of all the people who actually make up its community.

In any event, on his way back to the airport Steve spies young Andy Cutler (Eric Olson), who's been injured.  Setting down, Andy informs him that he was hit by a water spout from the earthen dam that maintains Brownsville's lake.  Although Steve is well aware of severe storms that have raised the lake level to an unprecedented point, Steve isn't too worried yetas Andy says, water spouts happen all the timebut when he in turn reports this to fellow pilot and junior town councilman Paul Burke (Martin Milner), Paul foresees the calamity he's been warning of for years, the collapse of the dam and the destruction of the entire town.  When he brings the matter before Mayor Cutler (frequent MST3K reference Richard Basehart) and his fellow councilpeople, Cutler shoots him down immediately, dismissing his suggestion to flood the spillways because that'll take all the town's precious fish with it.  The best Paul can get out of Cutler is a bland promise to take appropriate action whenever the engineer the council previously hired to survey the dam finally forwards his report.  This doesn't remotely satisfy Paul, and he begins what little preparations he can as a private citizen to get the wordand the peopleout.  In the meantime, this causes frictions with his nurse girlfriend, who happens to be Cutler's daughter, Mary (Barbara Hershey), and even his allies like the assistant in charge of the dam's operation, Sam (Cameron Mitchell), seem unwilling to stick their necks out.  Yet Paul's crusade takes on a terrible new urgency when he discovers that the engineer's report was delivered weeks ago, and it said exactly what he feared, that the dam is about to burst.

As long as Flood is concerned solely with its Jawsian tale of mayoral inertia (with even more 70s cynicism), it's a genuinely fine, even halfway-compelling procedural thriller about how to deal with a crisis that politicians have determined to ignore and downplay.  So, you know, timely.  Paul's a good anchor, and Milner is giving a legitimate if not especially deep performance as a man grimly determined to do what it takes even if it turns out he's wrong, and, not to imply there's no variation to it, grimly surprised to discover just how badly his trust has been abused.  (There's a lot of Inferno's Steve McQueen in his perseverance, and though the character's role is more akin to Paul Newman's, I don't expect it's an accident that Milner even resembles the former actor, only puffier.)  Basehart's not shabby either, as neither a corrupt nor venal politician, but something much simpler and more pathetic, the kind of local tyrant who can no longer distinguish truth from self-serving lies.  Teresa Wright, meanwhile, is on hand as Cutler's wife and to voice a fuller critique of this whole system's shortcomings.  She is also here, you've probably guessed, to fulfill the Allen disaster film formula, which three times in a row now has latched onto an Old Hollywood actress as a focal point for audience sympathy only to demonstrate Allen's apparent hatred of them, considering how much shit they get in his pictures.  (Bizarrely, Gloria Stuart's also in this movie, but like McDowall doesn't even hang around long enough to get snuffed.)  The charitable reading is that Allen has judged, correctly, that it makes a poignant argument about the meaningless cruelty of an unfair universe.

So that is pretty good, as far as it goes, with director Earl Bellamy guiding us through the plot(s) of the film with a TV-scale comfortable competence, not at all inappropriate to a disaster flick that's proud to be smallthis is maybe my favorite thing about it, and the secondary cast's blithe and denialistic attitude toward the prospect of doom rings unpleasantly true to life (Culp plays his pilot as visibly annoyed at the chores Paul tasks him with, and is still complaining about missing a date in San Francisco even when it's become clear the dam will break)though Bellamy doesn't let the tone of the thing go entirely slack, never neglecting to bring a tightening sense of fatalism to the proceedings, since of course there's no way that Paul will actually manage to avert the waiting catastrophe.  By no means is it perfect: for one thing, nobody rewrote Dan Ingalls's teleplay around Milner's 45 years on Earth when he was cast, so every piece of backstory that indicates that poor-boy Paul looked up to Cutler as a father figure or that Milner and 26 year-old Barbara Hershey could be childhood sweethearts comes off laughable in the most hapless B-movie kind of way.  Then there are the bits that feel slapped-together overnight.  Consider Sam's subplot with his pregnant wife (Carol Lynley, another Poseidon alum, and naturally there's "a pregnant wife") who gets trapped in her flooding house because, depending on the scene, she's either dying of something like an amniotic embolism, or is perfectly fine; or the way that Andy mechanically seeks out a peril to be put in, because, after having it explained to him by someone he trusts that a flood is imminent, he goes off to wander around the Goddamn woods, for no reason I managed to notice.

This bleeds into the finale, which is dragged out across the last half hour of Flood's 97 minutes.  Given the stately construction of Allen's features, it's remarkable that he must've felt that the titular disaster here couldn't be put off longer and concentrated into a tighter climax.  Worse, it's not like WBTV gave him the means to realize much of one anyway: the last genuinely good scene is the last desperate attempt to open the spillways and save the town, which ends with the dam's collapse.  It is not the worst stunt and miniature work, and it's not unthrilling, but it's not great.  It also comes off like Allen had been obliged to soften his typical callousness; it's crass to say, but this film does not have the body count it requires, whereas the destruction porn on offer is drab and low-key, more "stuff floating around in a swimming pool" than "raging floodwaters," matched with stock footage that feels like it's hovering in a void outside the movie.  And it just takes such a long timea curious thing, for a floodcontriving such awkwardly-staged danger around the safest characters in the film that it's hard not to get bored with it.  Even when it does get mean, it doesn't feel real, like Allen presented a list of the few characters who could die, but nobody put in the work to get them to a place where they reasonably would.  Nothing about it hurts like it should.  It never finds even a TV-scale copy of the mortal terror that Poseidon and Inferno had respectively soaked and boiled you in.  It's an underwhelming conclusion to a movie that had promised more, but what's so disappointing about it, coming from this filmmaker, is how emotionally flat this disaster is.

Score: 5/10

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