Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life Is Full Of Surprises

Bad movies. It’s one of the ongoing battles. More often than not I try to avoid writing about them because it just seems like a dead end. If they’re so bad they’re good I’m supposed to be snarky about it, if it’s the kind of bad that sucks the oxygen out of you writing about the film just becomes dispiriting. Of course, there’s always the hope that I’ll be able to dig into a film so I can break down why it doesn’t work. I still intend to get around to BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES sooner or later even though I’m not looking forward to it. But I’m forced to admit that my fascination remains. I’ll go to my grave expressing pride for seeing things like LOOSE CANNONS in the theater. The conundrum is when I feel incessantly drawn to some films that I know are terrible, as if dissecting them will get me to understand the badness even more and maybe somehow manage to find them even more fascinating. Maybe it helps me to love films all the more as a result. When it comes to writing about things like certain 70s disaster films I’m forced into confronting this.
You may have noticed a mention of actress Susan Blakely when I wrote about attending a special anniversary screening of THE LAST OF SHEILA recently. She’s not actually in that film although she’s a friend of James and Paula Coburn Foundation Executive Director Lynda Erkiletian who put together the event and it was thanks to the two of them that I got to be there. I’m still grateful and it was a thrill to meet Blakely that night so it seemed appropriate that I should write up on a film she was actually in. The first one that comes to mind is THE TOWERING INFERNO which I’ve covered before so I decided to move onto the other DVD I had close at hand featuring her--THE CONCORDE…AIRPORT ’79. Of course, for all I know she wouldn’t want me doing that because this is THE CONCORDE…AIRPORT ’79 we’re talking about after all, a film which came near the very end of the whole 70s disaster cycle. And like how Irwin Allen’s final theatrical film WHEN TIME RAN OUT… marked the end of his run, the Filmed-In-Universal-City 70s house style pretty much came to an halt with THE CONCORDE—hey, both of these films even share an ellipsis in their titles. If AIRPORT ’79 is a terrible film, and it pretty much is, at least it’s terrible for fascinatingly baffling reasons that make me wonder what sort of film was intentionally being made and if anyone ever spoke up on set about how blatantly absurd all this is even for the genre.
The first three films in the series (AIRPORT, AIRPORT 1975 and AIRPORT ’77, in case you forgot) all have their qualities and even now are strangely moody to the point that they’re actually ideal late night viewing. In various ways they each play as a part of the 70s zeitgeist or at least what I imagine a portrayal of the Nixon-Ford middle America conservative arm of the 70s zeitgeist to be, featuring affordable and willing big names in a no-nonsense, straightforward sort of spin of the GRAND HOTEL narrative structure punctuated by the mid-air jeopardy. For the most part they’re played as completely serious, jut-jawed, humorless, zero irony, featuring stars like Lancaster, Heston, Lemmon in the lead roles and an impressively diverse array of solid actors supporting them. In contrast THE CONCORDE is considerably more hysterical, surprisingly containing what are a number of presumably intentional laughs and one of the main stars is George Kennedy who was already familiar from this series, backed up by actors like John Davidson and Charo. It’s all over the place in tone and in spite of location shooting overseas it feels considerably smaller-scale than the others—it’s the only film in the series not shot in the widescreen 2.35 ratio and the flat look causes it to feel a little too much like a TV show made on a strict budget with touches like the generic “Concorde” painted on the side of the plane instead of an airline logo only adding to that feel. And in contrast to the by the book approach of the others there’s not a shred of plausible reality, even one that’s only set within the walls of Universal City. The film is so baffling that it makes me wonder if anyone knew while they were making it. I wonder if Susan Blakely knew. Incidentally, I should mention just from spending a little bit of time with her that she has to be the nicest, sweetest person on the planet and deserves better than this. She should have been in THE LAST OF SHEILA. Go follow her on Twitter and say that I sent you. And part of the whole conundrum I’m trying to get at that is I’d gladly watch the whole thing again right now. Clearly there’s something wrong with me.
As a brand new Concorde arrives in Washington D.C. to be handed over to Federation World Airlines, network news anchor Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) receives information that arms dealer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) has been involved in illegal sales. The informant is killed right in front of her almost immediately but the wrinkle in this discovery is that Maggie is having an affair with the wealthy industrialist and although he denies the allegations she soon receives documents confirming his guilt. She informs him of her plan to go public with this information just as she is boarding a pre-Olympic goodwill flight of the new Concorde heading for Paris and then Moscow. Harrison immediately puts into effect his plan to use his new high-tech weaponry known as The Buzzard to bring down the mighty Concorde to make sure Maggie won’t get that chance. The many people onboard in addition to Maggie include Captain Paul Mertrand (Alain Delon), his sometime-girlfriend stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel), airline owner Eli Sands (Eddie Albert) and young wife Amy (Sybil Danning), a reporter (John Davidson), his Russian gymnast girlfriend Alicia (Andrea Marcovicci), a desperate mother transporting a heart for her sick child (Cicely Tyson), an old woman who needs to use the bathroom (Martha Raye) and, of course, Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) there to pilot the revolutionary plane that can achieve supersonic speed and ready to deal with anything that comes in its path.
Released in August 1979, less than a year before AIRPLANE! demolished the disaster movie formula once and for all, it’s the sort of bad movie that makes you go “Huh? Wha? Was this really a thing?” Directed by David Lowell Rich, THE CONCORDE…AIRPORT ’79 (titled AIRPORT ’80: THE CONCORDE in some countries where it presumably came out later) is never boring but it also doesn’t have much in the way of coherence or logic or any sort of believability. For all I know it’s actually set on another planet where such rules don’t apply. Let’s forget that the character of Joe Patroni doesn’t much resemble who George Kennedy was playing in the previous movies from his beginnings as chief airline mechanic back in 1970. Let’s also forget that having Maggie’s plane shot down would create an international incident of such enormous magnitude, what with all the Soviet athletes and other luminaries onboard, that it comes off as the dumbest and most unnecessarily complicated murder plot ever. Let’s also forget that even when the first attack fails it would create such an international investigation probably grounding every Concorde in the world, if not all planes flying to and from Paris. Maybe we should also forget about Joe Patroni sticking his hand out of the cockpit window to fire off a flare gun to distract one of the missiles while the Concorde is flying upside down over Mach 1. Actually, I don’t know how anyone could ever forget that.
Whether you want to consider the earlier films in the series legitimately good or bad (the first one especially may be cheese but even now it’s very entertaining cheese), the scripts for them have a consistency as if they were spotlighting the grand achievements of post-war America and what the people in charge can accomplish when things go wrong, often through no fault of their own, proving that American idealism and know-how will always win out in the end. The screenplay for THE CONCORDE is utterly imbecilic, so completely lacking in logic or rational motivation or plausibility but, in fairness, it’s pretty good considering the writer was ten years old. Actually, it was written by Eric Roth (producer Jennings Lang is credited with the story) who later went on to considerable acclaim as screenwriter on films like FORREST GUMP, MUNICH, THE GOOD SHEPHERD and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON as well as co-writer on Michael Mann films like THE INSIDER and ALI. So never assume anything when it comes to screenwriters’ past credits. The story is as flimsy as the Concorde when it begins to break apart during the climax filled with character motivation that is completely muddled. And with dialogue like the now-infamous “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing,” delivered by George Kennedy it verges close to intentional self-parody which would be fine if the damn thing would just decide on a tone, veering from apparent awareness of the absurdity to absolute deadly seriousness at times within moments of each other, along with a few random lines meant to sell us on how amazing the Concorde is. The trailer on the DVD in the AIRPORT Terminal Pack which features all four films seems to be mistakenly missing the voiceover narration. Maybe the film is too.
With a balloon launched in the opening moments specifically to protest the Concorde (by “a radical environmentalist group”) there’s an indication that the film is going to deal with current events that were around at the time—the balloon seems to go from the Lincoln Memorial to the runway at Dulles in the space of a few minutes which says something about the plausibility. The thread is pretty much dropped instantly anyway and the presence of a Soviet Olympics team on a goodwill tour probably doomed the movie’s topicality when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 games several months after the film opened. It all feels bogus right from the start and believability isn’t helped by the newscast near the beginning, a broadcast which in Basil Exposition style seems to consist entirely of upcoming plot points in the film (some of which are spoken by a pre-SIMPSONS Harry Shearer as the voice of a reporter which now only adds to the absurdity) including the introduction of Robert Wagner’s Kevin Harrison who has just been awarded ‘Man of the Year’ by ‘the United States Science Foundation’ an obvious sign that he’s up to no good.
There’s not that much to say about director Rich’s shooting style although he does occasionally brings some creative blocking into play like when Wagner watches Blakely leave in one of those shuttles at Dulles Airport but the portentousness of moments like this makes it feel like a parody of direction trying to amp up suspense and there’s never any tension as the Concorde turns upside down with actors and extras screaming. The air disasters in the previous sequels are outlandish but there’s something primal in the fears they touch off—a bomb going off in mid-flight, no one onboard able to land a plane since the pilot has been killed due to a mid-air collision, even the suspense that comes from the underwater crash in ’77 has an effectiveness since we can of course relate to a fear of drowning, but the plot this time goes beyond ludicrous. There’s never any sense of actual jeopardy, particularly since no one seems the least bit concerned about getting back on the plane only a day after it was attacked. Airline owner Eddie Albert storms off the plane after the first flight insisting that it will take off the next day on schedule—so much for an investigation or adequate time for repairs, I suppose, and the pilots are apparently never even debriefed by authorities as everyone settles in for a night in Paris like they’re stopping over on a bus trip. Odd touches every now and then at least provide an unusual mood setter like Robert Wagner’s insecurity at wearing glasses or the woman in a wheelchair who appears from nowhere to shove some crucial documents in someone’s hands at least plays as appropriately disarming but more often than not these things are cancelled out by a moment or action that bears no resemblance to actual human behavior so they wind up just playing as random bits that don’t add up to anything. And then there’s the intentional comedy of George Kennedy’s Parisian dinner set up with Bibi Andersson, of course famous from multiple Ingmar Bergman films, and the ultimate revelation he learns about her the morning after. All I’ll say is that if you’ve ever wanted to see George Kennedy make love to Bibi Andersson by a roaring then this is your chance.
At least some location work makes it feel like a real movie--the early dialogue scene between Blakely and Wagner set out on the National Mall in D.C. is so deserted I wonder if it was one of those Sunday at 6AM deals. And a chase scene at Charles DeGualle Airport midway through actually winds up being fairly suspenseful—it’s nothing great but for a few minutes it does feel like we’re watching a cool 70s European spy movie. But too much is just ridiculous. Why does Maggie Whelan believe a single word that Harrison says? Why doesn’t she go public with her findings as soon as she gets off the plane in Paris instead of waiting until she reaches Moscow? Does she feel any pangs of guilt from having an affair with a man who has a wife and three kids? Why is Harrison still trying to make things right with her after he’s tried to have her killed and will try again? Wouldn’t he be worried about the resulting investigation if his plan to shoot down the Concorde succeeds? Maybe a longer cut would have helped explain things—this isn’t the only AIRPORT sequel where it feels like scenes clarifying points like simple motivation were sliced down to bare essentials to stay below a two-hour running time—several scenes added to the network version were apparently shot just for that purpose including an appearance by Jessica Walter as Patroni’s wife in flashback (go here for more than you’ll ever want to know about the network cut). The scenes that can be found on Youtube are pretty lousy but at least they offer an excuse why Patroni is thinking about his late wife twenty minutes before the movie’s end for no reason. However long it is, I still barely know what to make of this film. You don’t get titles that contain years very much anymore, at least not referencing the year the movie actually opened. You also don’t get movies like THE CONCORDE…AIRPORT ’79 anymore which comes off as so tone-deaf and cluelessly bad—at least, I think that’s what it is—that it really does become endearing. Maybe it’s one of the worst films ever released by a major studio, but I don’t like to assign labels to these things. It makes my head hurt and yet I’m still kind of glad it’s there.
The actors to their credit do seem like they’re actually trying, just flailing from lack of actual direction and half the time I wonder if they’re playing scenes thinking about something cut from earlier in the film that we never got to see. Susan Blakely tries her best but it’s an impossible part to play and many of her actions don’t say much for someone who’s supposed to be a high-powered journalist. Robert Wagner appears to be trying to add substance to his part as if to indicate a hidden distaste for his actions but there’s only so much he can do considering what’s on the page. George Kennedy may be kind of a punchline now considering the inevitability of his appearance and his later association with THE NAKED GUN but he still plays things with technical expertise, somehow actually selling a ridiculous moment talking about a girl he once knew in Saigon. It’s just so odd to find that kind of joke in the context of an AIRPORT movie, up until this entry just about the most strait-laced, humorless franchise ever and it makes moments like this even stranger but he does provide a certain weight and stoicism in the eye of all this nonsense. As for Alain Delon I’m not sure what he’s doing in this movie at all, money aside, but I guess if you ever wanted to see him pal around with George Kennedy this is your chance. In his love scenes with Sylvia Kristel the material doesn’t provide them with much beyond the thinnest of soap opera scraps.
Jimmie Walker, playing his saxophone and smoking weed, is comic relief. Monica Lewis, Mrs. Jennings Lang and also in EARTHQUAKE and AIRPORT ’77, is a jazz singer on tour. John Davidson plays a reporter named Robert Palmer and somebody before me has probably come up with all the obvious jokes already. Andrea Marcovicci is his Russian gymnast love interest. Mercedes McCambridge is her stern instructor. David Warner is the Concorde’s navigator, kind of a comedown after playing Jack the Ripper in TIME AFTER TIME, but he’s always good to have around. Eddie Albert is the owner of the airline, using all the bluster you would expect (“I had the best seat in the house!” he cracks when his seat almost falls through the hole in the plane). Sybil Danning, looking awfully cute, is his much younger wife. Cicely Tyson is the crying mother of an unseen kid who needs a heart transplant. Avery Schreiber is a Russian coach, spending most of his screentime explaining things via sign language to his deaf daughter. Really, let’s not talk about Martha Raye needing to use the bathroom. Charo gets pretty high billing for a brief cameo in which she tries to smuggle a dog onto the plane, another one of the ‘comedy’ bits sprinkled in there. Ed Begley Jr. has about twelve seconds as a rescuer in the Swiss Alps near the end, playing his one scene in a blatantly obvious set. If the AV Club ever does a Random Roles with Begley they’d better bring up this one.
The crash into the Swiss Alps and the subsequent rescue of the final moments is rushed through, with most of the characters not even given a ‘final’ scene, followed by a fast fade out on the triumphant image of the mighty Concorde once again in midflight, presumably heading off into future glory. I guess. Even if the movie had been any good, even if AIRPLANE! had never been made, it’s easy to imagine that this would have been near the end of the line for the AIRPORT series anyway since the concept of air travel simply wasn’t as exotic as it once had been. Alain Delon even has a line of dialogue observing, “Only three hours and a half ago we were in Paris. The world seems so small.” The final Concorde flight took place in November 2003 so it’s now a part of a future that no longer exists—incidentally, the jet used in this film was later purchased by Air France and remained in service until it crashed in July 2000, killing all onboard. The last Concorde flight took place in October 2003 ending the era of supersonic flight and in the year 2013 there’s not much in the way of glamour to air travel at all anymore. Don’t get me started on US Airways. Maybe since there wasn’t much left to say about the excitement of air travel, and considering how the movie seems pretty desperate to say something about it and have a reason to exist, this was where the series needed to end. And now in writing this all this I’m probably taking the movie much more seriously than I should. But that’s what I do. I can’t help myself. So in case I ever get to run into Susan Blakely again one of these days, I hope she’ll be ok with all this. And I will watch every absurd moment of THE CONCORDE…AIRPORT ’79 again eventually, maybe sooner than I care to admit.


mark s. said...

Hey, I'm a Blakely fan, too. Remember (of course you do) her Patty Butler character in "Report to the Commissioner?"

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Alas, I still have yet to see that one...

Unknown said...

Ms. Blakely was very fine in The Towering Inferno. Her final scenes provided a lot of pathos, and she should have had a lot more acting opportunities than she had. She is also so charming and lovely in interviews on TTI DVD extras.