Directed by Georg Fenady
Written by Arthur Weiss, Ray Goldstone, Michael Robert David, and Alvin Boretz
By the end of 1979, for reasons atop of reasons, the association between Warner Bros. and Irwin Allen was winding down. While he still had one theatrical film left in his contract and Warners would dutifully fund it, clearly the studio and their own partners were just waiting for that association to finally end so they could stop burning money on a dead fad. This is nowhere more obviously felt than in the other deal Allen had with Warners to produce a series of broadcast films for NBC, which by the close of '79 had resulted in fully five pictures, only three of which had actually been aired by that point. I can't speak with authority as to how successful Allen's telefilms had been, but they couldn't have been too well-received: the fourth one, The Night the Bridge Fell Down, got thrown in a closet, and it was only finally pulled out four years later, on the all-important night of February 28, 1983, to serve as NBC's perfunctory sacrificial lamb against the series finale of M*A*S*H, a job that might as well have been given to a test pattern.
Obviously, I'm not here to tell you this crummy thing is better than the series finale of M*A*S*H. I will tell you, however, that The Night the Bridge Fell Down is reasonably adequate, which presents itself as a genuine miracle at this decadent stage of our disaster cinema retrospective: of Allen's five telefilms, it is the very first to finally hit that benchmark. Maybe the producer was just due, and the law of averages had to kick in sometime: frankly, Allen's first three TV disaster movies had gotten worse as they went along, recently bottoming out with Hanging By a Thread (like this, directed by Georg Fenady), which did air in 1979—to clarify, that's the dilatory chamber drama set on a broken alpine tram, that is also three and a quarter hours long—and which I presume did so poorly that it was the proximate reason that Bridge and Allen's other disaster telefilm, Cave-In, did not get to air. What Bridge feels like, however—at least to a certain degree, and at this point a "certain degree" means the world—is Allen and Fenady absorbing the lessons of their failures, and figuring out a way to fix some of them. The most blatant problems, in fact, are fixed: for starters, Bridge actually works as an exercise in its chosen genre, and comes off like a significantly larger amount of money got spent on it to effect its genre thrills, though my suspicion is merely that its money was only spent more intelligently.
So: in absolute brief, if rather misleadingly, it's Dog Day Afternoon on a collapsing bridge, and as is now a tradition for Allen TV disasters, we return to Oregon, or at least the visuals declare it to be Oregon, as our bridge is a dead ringer for the Astoria-Megler Bridge on the Columbia River, the world's longest continuous truss bridge, and therefore a solid choice for spectacular destruction. The bridge has recently been the site of a statistically-improbable rash of car accidents, and inspector Cal Miller (James MacArthur) has determined to find out why, to the chagrin of his chief, whose highest duty appears to be to ignore anything inconvenient, for example what Miller discovers lurking in the bedrock beneath the piles. Tectonic shifts have been semi-randomly causing the expansion joints to get out of whack and send cars flying, which should be enough to close the bridge by itself, albeit with the customary red tape; but Miller is sure that the bridge is right on the verge of full collapse, and he takes matters into his own hands to shut down the bridge and probably lose his job trying. He's too late, arriving only in time to witness huge spans of the bridge collapse, leaving a single island of light floating above the middle of the river, still standing, but not for very long.
The survivors not only don't have much of any easy way down, they wouldn't be able to take it if they did: what I haven't mentioned is that right before the collapse, a high-speed chase had just concluded between bank robber Johnny Pyle (Desi Arnaz Jr.) and Patrolman Harvey Lewis (Richard Gilliland). In the aftermath, Pyle took the upper hand, and made hostages of his fellow survivors. Besides the now-wounded cop, these number seven: Pyle's unwitting fiancée, Dee (Char Fontane); a childcare worker at a Catholic orphanage, Terry Kelly (Eve Plumb), half-decided on becoming a nun and, not coincidentally, also Lewis's ex-girlfriend (which isn't not contrived, but the bridge is, after all, a transportation chokepoint); Kelly's young charge, Judy (Colleen Davis), on her way to a new family if she lives that long; a kindly house-painter, Diego Ramirez (Gregory Sierra), on his way to visit his injured daughter in the hospital; and, finally, an adulterous middle-aged couple, Paul Warren (Leslie Nielsen) and Elaine Howard (Barbara Rush), both engaged in their own, more white-collar crime caper, and only on the bridge because Warren is likewise on his way to the hospital, transporting his infant son who chose tonight of all nights to get a life-threatening fever. Of course, Pyle's priority is getting off this bridge and to freedom with his cash—he explains, very early on, that he doesn't even care if his wife-to-be lives or dies.
This is similar to a lot of disaster films, needless to say, but especially so to Hanging By a Thread: a disaster scenario where the victims are more-or-less confined to a single location that becomes less safe the more time goes by, with the added prospect of death or injury by violence thanks to an extrinsic plot with a gunman (at least the victims here are actually aware the gunman exists, which helps a lot); it is also like Hanging By a Thread in that it, too, was a heavily-padded two-night event. To state the extremely, extremely obvious, there is nothing about this that demands to be that long; it's needless to point that out, but that runtime, 194 full minutes, is the most salient feature of the film and pretty much by default the worst. Yet if we accept it never, ever earns its runtime—and it's clear it's never even going to try when, "Dog Day Afternoon on a bridge" or not, it abandons anything potentially complex or even recognizably humane about Pyle the instant the catastrophe arrives—that does not mean, by necessity, that it abuses its runtime. It plays with the same fire that Hanging By a Thread did with flashbacks, but these never become its thing. They're unwelcome—the film even argues against their existence, with its most emotional moment coming between Ramirez and Judy not as a result of a flashback, but a child actor simply delivering her tragic backstory in monologue while Sierra's adult acting sells it as genuinely sad—but even to the extent these flashbacks are filler, there just aren't that many of them, and never enough to endanger the disaster movie in progress.
It's kind of shocking, then, given the extrinsic requirement to fill a pair of two-hour programming blocks, how quickly that bridge falls down: it's only about thirty-five minutes in, and we've even been humming along pretty well beforehand, most of our time spent either on the thrills of Pyle's robbery or Miller's sweaty mission to get to the bottom of his bridge's problems, which is simply solid disaster flick procedure even if we know he's not going to prevent shit; like Rollercoaster before it, there's just something likeable about maverick safety inspectors, and I'm surprised they're not the heroes of more disaster flicks. The more appropriate two hour (or shorter) version of this film, of course, would've simply placed Miller on the Goddamn bridge in the first place, and it's noticeable that the screenwriters went out of their way not to tighten their script—especially given MacArthur's performance, which means that the single strongest presence in the movie is essentially sidelined for upwards of an hour—but thankfully it never feels like we're just spinning our wheels before he finally gets up there.
It's not the kind of movie where you point to specific scenes; none are great. But every one (give or take a flashback) is outstandingly functional, and with this much space to fill, that's virtually great. There are individual elements that are good, certainly: we're locked down to a single location and effectively a single set, or rather, a few sets, counting the undercarriage locations that get explored about as frequently as the topside—I couldn't swear that the stretch of bridge that survived is only one set (this isn't supposed to be the negative part of the review anymore, but Fenady and his editors have a little trouble with geography and sightlines, so that action on one side of the bridge can feel like it's completely inaccessible to action on the other, even though it's only about a hundred feet away and in a straight line)—but whatever, the main action has the decency to be on a nice, big set, a stagebound but not for that reason unpersuasive recreation of a small section of torn-up bridge, courtesy art director Duane Alt. The backdrops with the lights of a distant shore give us the impression sometimes of being lost in intergalactic space; and Fenady ensures what remains of his bridge suffers from increasing instability, as well as the occasional hurtling piece of falling steel. Fenady even executes something like a visual scheme, with the red emergency lighting on the bridge becoming a more pronounced aspect of John Nickolaus's cinematography as things move into endgame.
Bridge is obliged to take recourse to sometimes-iffy modelwork, and not just iffy in terms of believability (they forget to burn one of the model cars after setting fire to the full-sized car, for example); but bridges do seem to be some of the harder structures to render credible destructible models out of, with the scale versions always having a bit of a popsicle-stick quality to them. I have surely seen worse model bridges fall down, however, and even if the effects are a little dubious, at least Allen isn't stingy with them. And there's imagery that offers genuine aesthetic pleasure, not even grading on a curve: these, I think, use real locationwork and stuntwork (or else some truly superb compositing), and I never got tired of watching the stuntpeople clamber around the borderline-psychedelic mess of Escheresque angles created by the girders in the bridge's support structure. (I did get tired of cameras attached to the roofs of emergency vehicles behind the flashing red lights, Police Squad style, but Fenady does have space to fill, doesn't he?) The score, meanwhile, is downright heroic: the amount of this movie that composer Richard LaSalle actually scores would be remarkable in its proportions even for a shorter movie, and it's surprisingly varied—I'm particularly keen on the weird innovation of a disco motif (he uses it for the evil villain), standing out amidst the loving Airport knock-off of the rest of it, and even though by the last hour he's starting to repeat himself, he does still have a few new ideas to pull out, like some anxious strings during the hazardous climb down.
Well, that brings us back to problems—it is never 100% clear, and becomes more unclear as the film climaxes, what the fuck the problem with simply climbing down was. (Or why a thirty-foot fall into water would remain scarier than going to prison once you've already climbed four-fifths of the way down.) It's perhaps also worth mentioning that all these cars are still functional, and somebody expendable attempting to run Pyle over would've made for a pretty cool action scene. Oh, but I said "expendable," and that's where Bridge starts to lose it, unfortunately: in this, we might have the single most edges-rounded-off child-safe disaster movie ever, depressingly indicative of Allen's decay from what he'd been even just a year earlier, his genre's greatest philosophical absurdist—hell, even the novelty of throwing an out-and-out sociopath into the mix of a disaster movie doesn't really pay off. No, this script makes it blaringly obvious who's marked for death (they are also very few), so that it can't even be called "bad" that eventually one of them effectively just seems to fall off the damn bridge on purpose in a bungled bit of direction from Fenady, since it wouldn't have been too out of place, and wouldn't have really mattered, if lightning from heaven had struck him down instead. That's a sour note to end on, but I hope it throws the rest into relief: it's only even relevant because this TV disaster movie nobody saw is, otherwise, actually kinda good.