The granddaddy of all disaster in the air epics remains, George Seaton’s Airport (1970) – although personally I have never understood why the film wasn’t titled ‘Airplane’, since the perils faced by passengers aboard a Boeing 707 occur in the skies, not on the ground. Airport is an all-star extravaganza that really owes its heritage to all those glamorous melodramas of the 1930s, like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner At Eight (1933) than the ensemble disaster classics it so obviously, at least in retrospect, ushered in; The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974).
Airport has more than a hint of frothiness for soap operatic melodrama best exemplified in films like MGM’s The VIP’s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Arguably, it is also a direct descendent of the John Wayne classic, The High and the Mighty (1954); the ‘original’ tale of looming ‘in-flight’ catastrophe.
Airport is very loosely based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, heavily rewritten for the screen by Seaton and an unaccredited Henry Hathaway. The plot is pure, and occasionally magnificent, pulp, mostly focusing on a disgruntled and mentally unstable demolitions expert, D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin in his last screen role) who has decided to spare his wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton) the indignation of living their sad, lonely and impoverished existence any longer. To this end, Guerrero takes out a life insurance policy, then plots to kill himself so that Inez can collect. The wrinkle, of course, is that the company will not pay for a suicide. The only way for Inez to get her money’s worth is if the death looks like a terrible accident.
So, Guerrero devises a ridiculous scenario. He’ll use his last bit of savings to buy a ticket on The Golden Argosy – an intercontinental jet currently snowbound in Chicago, but scheduled for a flight to Rome. Once the plane is airborne over the Atlantic Guerrero will detonate the homemade bomb he’s smuggled aboard in his suitcase, thereby blowing up the plane and everyone in it, with no chance of a proper investigation to reveal the true cause of the disaster.
Of course, subplots abound. For starters, there is the very adversarial relationship between arrogant pilot, Capt. Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) who is trying to depose his brother-in-law, Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) as the general manager of Trans-Global Airways. Demerest is married to Mel’s sister, Sarah (Barbara Hale) but is also having a torrid romance with flight attendant, Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) who has since become pregnant. Having already decided to have her baby and then put it up for adoption, Gwen will spend the bulk of the narrative contemplating the future of their flawed relationship.
Meanwhile, Bakersfeld is under a heap of stress for what has been largely misperceived by Commissioner Ackerman (Larry Gates) as a mismanagement of the airport’s resources. Actually, Bakersfeld has sacrificed everything, including his marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter), to be a hands on, 24/7 level-headed voice of experience for the ailing airline. Currently his woes are focused on Flight 45, a Boeing 707 run aground during a violent snowstorm that requires immediate attention to clear it off the runway. Bakersfeld telephones his maintenance expert, Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) who was all set for a romantic evening with his wife, Marie (Jodean Russo) but willingly agrees to rush to the airport to handle this latest debacle.
On the home front, Bakersfeld has been having his own on again/off again affair with Trans-Global’s customer relations manager, Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg). She is mostly sympathetic to Bakersfeld’s marital situation, but has practically decided to take another job in San Francisco because she has wisely assessed that their love affair is at a standstill.
Finally, there’s Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes); a pensioned widow and loveably resourceful con artist who has been caught stowing away on another Trans-Global flight, but freely admits to Bakersfeld and Livingston in her own inimitably devil-may-care way that she has been taking free flights for years to visit her daughter in New York. Bakersfeld finds Ada charming. But Livingston lowers the boom on the dowager, assigning clerk Peter Coakley (John Findlater) to see that Ada is safely sent back home.
Of course, the clever con finds ways to escape her naïve escort, this time by faking illness that necessitates Peter going in search of a doctor. Ada then exploits an old trick of telling the counter personnel that her son has already boarded the Golden Argosy without his wallet and asks if she can return it to him.
His already fragile psyche well on its way to implosion, Guerrero arrives at the airport and takes out extra insurance for the flight, mailing the voucher to Inez before boarding the plane. But Gurrero’s suspicious clutching of his briefcase and his rather panged expression raise the dander of U.S. Customs Officer Harry Standish (Lloyd Nolan). After all, he has just caught Mrs. Harriet DuBarry Mossman (Jessie Royce Landis) attempting to smuggle a diamond bracelet in the collar of her dog. Standish alerts Livingston about Guerrero, who tells Bakerfeld, who opts to do nothing for fear of a liable suit. That is, until all of them learn of Guerrero’s intensions from a very distraught and near catatonic Inez.
But by then it’s too late. The Golden Argosy is in flight. Bakersfeld alerts Demerest to the fact that he has a stowaway and possible suicide bomber aboard. Amidst all this turmoil, Demerest has a heart to heart with his co-pilot, Anson Harris (Barry Nelson) about the prospect of becoming a first time father. Harris, a family man with seven children, tells Demerest that his brood has been a richly rewarding stabilizer in his life, leaving Demerest to contemplate divorcing Sarah in order to marry Gwen.
Learning that Ada is in the seat next to Guerrero, Demerest summons her to the cockpit for a plan of action to get Guerrero away from his suitcase. Upon returning to her seat, Ada fakes a panic attack and snatches Guerrero’s suitcase from him, supposedly to throw it at Gwen. Unfortunately, Guerrero regains possession of the suitcase, alerting the rest of the passengers that he has a bomb inside it. Demerest attempts to diffuse the situation by informing Guerrero that his plan has already been exposed to ground control and as a result his insurance claim is null and void.
For a brief moment it looks as though Guerrero will surrender to Demerest. But when a panicked passenger screams, a frightened Guerrero barricades himself in the washroom and detonates the bomb. The explosion tears a gaping hole in the fuselage that seriously wounds Gwen. Demerest and Harris struggle to maintain control over the plane’s plummeting altitude, before attempting an emergency landing moments after Patroni has managed to clear Flight 45 off the runway.
Having narrowly averted the catastrophe, Demerest decides his future is with Gwen. As he accompanies her to the hospital, Sarah realizes she has lost her husband forever. Bakersfeld and Cindy come to an understanding and decide to divorce, leaving the weary manager free to pursue his relationship with Livingston. Only this time he is determined to do things right by balancing his professional and private life.
Despite the film’s overwhelming box office success (it cleared over $100 million on a $10 million dollar budget and had three sequels) and the fact that it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, it’s very easy not to like Airport. For one thing, the ensemble acting is uniformly overly melodramatic. Burt Lancaster and George Kennedy spout off each line of their dialogue as though every moment were an emotional crisis with international ramifications. Van Heflin, looking sad-eyed, disoriented and slightly bloated is an unimpressive villain, and yet a rather unsympathetic everyman who has become a shell of his former self.
Helen Hayes, in an Oscar-winning performance no less, gives the most credible – though hardly perfect – performance in the film. She is gentle and yet direct as the seemingly fragile and slightly dotty dowager who is given a new lease on life by being able to save everyone else with her impeccable lampoon of a passenger on the verge of a claustrophobic meltdown.
Regrettably, the immediacy of the actors is not mirrored in the pacing of the Seaton/Hathaway screenplay, or in the rather laissez faire visual style of the film that meanders through these secret lives without escalating the tension until the very end of the film’s last act. Midway through Seaton interjects an oddly moralizing pro-life agenda into the Demerest/Meighen affair that blindly eschews the illicitness of their love affair. These morally problematic implications are allowed to fester rather than growing richer or more revealing about the future of the couple as the film wears on.
Viewed today, Airport is a quaintly archaic relic at best; all-star and vintage-glamour, but without the necessary oomph or even generalized excitement that subsequent disaster epics like The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno have in spades. The film’s narrative threads are rather awkwardly intertwined, ricocheting from inconsequential melodrama on the ground to even more benign drama in the air, ultimately diffusing both into a cacophony of mediocrity at best.
There’s better news for Universal’s Blu-ray – a marvellous upgrade indeed. My admiration for Universal has consistently grown during their 100th Anniversary celebration. Airport has benefitted from a new 1080p transfer. The proof is in the presentation. The Todd A-0 image looks spectacular. Colours that had been fairly solid on Universal’s previously issued DVDs absolutely pop on the Blu-ray with a richness and vibrancy never before seen. Everything tightens up.
The image is razor sharp without becoming digitally harsh. Contrast levels have greatly improved with deep saturated blacks. Age related artefacts have been tempered for a very smooth visual presentation that does not suffer the fate of DNR, revealing fine details in backgrounds, clothing, hair and faces. The DTS 5.1 audio will definitely amaze, especially in extolling the virtues of Alfred Newman’s classy score – the last the composer ever wrote for film; just wonderful.
Less wonderful is Universal’s lack of extras; nothing but a trailer and two 100th Anniversary junkets already available on other Blu-ray releases. Ho-hum. Bottom line: highly recommended for its breathtaking new 1080p presentation – but only if you absolutely love the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)