Ralph Nelson’s Fate is the Hunter (1964) bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean Negulesco’s 1952 potboiler, Phone Call from a Stranger; a fairly straight forward tale about people brought together after a tragic loss of life in the blink of an eye following the crash of a commercial airliner. Apart from the movie’s title, very little remains of Ernest K. Gann’s bestseller on which the movie is supposedly based; screenwriter Harold Medford aspiring to little more than a ‘nuts and bolts’ investigation of Consolidated Airways Flight 22. Medford’s approach to Gann’s operatic material is pedestrian at best. And Gann, who actually began in earnest to write his own screenplay before throwing in the towel, forever regretted this decision – not so much for Medford’s mangling of his central plot or even the distillation of the novel’s piquancy into timid textbook melodrama, but rather, because he received no residuals whenever this movie was replayed on television (and in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it played a lot!).
As scripted by Medford, the plot revolves around stewardess, Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette), who just might be able to piece together the clues for Consolidated Airline’s CEO Sam McBane (Glenn Ford). Alas, Medford’s screenplay is fairly mechanical. His use of the flashback to resurrect the late Capt. Jack Savage (played with roguish aplomb by Rod Taylor), and thus providing us with a bit of personal backstory contrary to the frame-up presently taking place inside Consolidated’s damage control command center, (sure…let’s blame the crash on pilot error – a dead man who cannot defend himself) is not altogether successful. In the movie’s climactic reenactment of the perilous events that brought down Flight 22, it all boils down to a cup of coffee; bad timing, engine failure and the presence of a wooden pier scheduled for demolition two weeks earlier – in short – fate: that omnipotent set of circumstances conspiring against we mere mortals.
Fate is the Hunter is a noticeably cumbersome and not terribly prepossessing melodrama – owing part of its problematic pacing to director Nelson’s insistence on conducting the affair as something of a noir police procedural from the 1940’s. The movie’s salvation comes partly from its performances, predominantly Glenn Ford’s cleverly cryptic/outwardly caustic man of action, determined to get to the bottom of things even if it means dashing to pieces his competitive prospects for a promotion within the company. Flight 22’s disaster could not have been more ill-timed for McBane, locked in a heated race for the presidency with wily coworker, Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff); the latter, only too eager to buy into the scenario Savage was drunk and therefore solely responsible for the crash. Alas, even this revelation does come first to Sawyer – something of a conflicted, backstabbing corporate stooge; the nugget implanted by a little bit of investigative journalism from ambulance chaser/eleven o’clock newshound, Dan Crawford (Max Showalter). According to Crawford’s sources, Savage was spotted at several bars around town with confirmed drunkard, Mickey Doolan (40’s second-string heartthrob, Mark Stevens, herein effectively gaunt and careworn in a startling departure from his ensconced pop image).
It will take McBane the better half of the movie’s 106 minutes to track Doolan down; also to piece together inklings with the help of empathetic radio controller, Ralph Bundy (Wally Cox); Savage’s latest fling, the queerly philosophical marine biologist, Sally Fraser (Nancy Kwan) and his former flame, Lisa Bond (Dorothy Malone as a thoroughly heartless Marilyn Monroe knock-off who doesn’t allow a society soiree to intrude upon her…um…grief). Alas, Fate is the Hunter plays to the stereotype of the cold-blooded corporation, in this case, helmed by the unscrupulous Dillon (Bert Freed), Proctor (Robert F. Simon) and Mark Hutchins (Howard St. John), who almost immediately upon getting wind of Savage’s pre-flight bar-hopping escapades, decide to pin sole responsibility for the crash on him; skewing the reassembled evidence, including a flight box recording of Flight 22’s last airborne moments, and encouraging McBane to thrown Savage’s reputation under the proverbial bus for sake of saving the company’s face – also, his own skin; hopefully to avoid some very expensive and soon to follow lawsuits from victim’s survivors.
It would be all too easy for McBane to do simply this. After all, Jack Savage was hardly a friend; more like a barely tolerated coworker; Savage too brash and cocky for his own good. No, Jack Savage was not very likeable except as the devil-may-care ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ lady’s man to whom all life’s advantages came much too easily, garnering envy as everybody’s ‘good time Joe’ – a very thin sheath indeed, masking their abject contempt for the man. Even McBane’s secretary/love interest, Peg Burke (Constance Towers) – only interested in seeing her man’s chances for the presidency not go up in flames – and Savage’s landlady, Mrs. Llewlyn (played with nattering perfection by Mary Wickes) have their stake in wrecking Savage’s ‘good name’. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Savage’s reputation as a hotshot pilot is impeccable. He would never think to gamble his career on a binge just before takeoff.
During the war years, Savage thwarted McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with actress, Jane Russell (Russell, playing herself) by sending McBane on a wild goose chase. Male machismo and animosity aside, the more level-headed and introspective McBane secretly admired Savage; or, at least, Savage’s bon vivant defiance; not to play by the rules and/or live up to everyone else’s expectations. McBane, however, has always been ‘by the book’. He may not live life to its fullest, but there’s a conscious thread of honesty permeating his life’s work. It’s precisely this quality as the noble company whore and McBane’s repeated attack of conscience that will lead him to dispel the myth about Savage’s incompetence; speaking truth for a man who perhaps never gave even the concept of genuineness much thought in life, and now, can no longer offer even an appraisal of it in his own defense.
Fate is the Hunter begins with a riveting pre-title prologue; the disastrous last minutes of Consolidated’s Flight 22. Savage confides in McBane shortly before takeoff, that he suspects McBane is on the rise within the company hierarchy – soon to become its new president. McBane reminds Savage of Ben Sawyer, also up for the job. Moreover, Sawyer knows how to manipulate the variables to win this race. But if wily deception is the only way to ascend to the top, then McBane would just as soon have none of it. Thus, we enter the plane with stewardesses, Martha Webster and D’Arcy (Marianna Case); the latter a last minute replacement who has already caught the eye of our randy captain, despite the fact he has two women on the go on the ground; fair-weather good time gal, Lisa Bond, and devoted – though hardly naïve – Sally Fraser. We briefly meet a few of the nameless passengers on board; one (Jim Boles) having taken out an exorbitant life insurance policy just prior to the flight (suggesting a possible terrorist plot, immediately contemplated by Consolidated’s brain trust after the crash, but thereafter just as quickly dispelled) and four year old, Angela Dawson – on her way to visit her grandmother in Seattle.
The preflight checklist cleared by Savage and his copilot, Flight 22 takes off. However, almost immediately it experiences engine failure. Savage remains calm and collected as he requests permission to land. Alas, the fates have conspired against the passengers and crew; three incoming planes deferring Flight 22’s emergency landing to a sandy stretch of beach. It ought to have been manageable, if only the contractor assigned to tear down a rickety wooden pier had done his job on schedule. Regrettably, the pier remains intact, Flight 22 slamming into the embankment nose first and bursting into a hellish ball of flames. In an instant, fifty-four lives are lost; McBane and a gaggle of news-hungry reporters rushing down the tarmac to inspect the wreckage for survivors. Only three are pulled alive from the twisted metal – two dying en route to hospital – and one; stewardess, Martha, left to tearfully lament how she could have made it through this nightmarish ordeal in one piece.
Thus, begins McBane’s investigation of the facts; momentarily interrupted when TV reporter, Dan Crawford shares his tidbit of information with Dillion, Proctor and Hutchins; that Savage may have been flying under the influence. McBane refuses to believe it. After all, he saw Savage just prior to takeoff; collected, suave and self-aggrandizing as ever. Recovery of the flight recorder reveals no such lapses in judgment either or slurred outbursts by Savage just before the plane went down. No, something other than pilot error must be responsible for this terrible loss of life. In short order, McBane tracks down friends who knew Savage best, discovering kindred spirits in Sally, Ralph and Mickey that will help exonerate Savage’s public image from any wrong doing.
Fate is the Hunter might have had more to offer if it just stuck with this exculpatory reconnaissance. Instead, Harold Medford’s screenplay regresses into a lengthy and decidedly tedious flashback set during the war, triggered by McBane’s discovery of a garter dangling off the mantelpiece inside Savage’s rented bungalow. We see McBane and Savage in their younger years as two pilots in the South Seas; Savage already full of himself as he usurps McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with USO singer, Jane Russell (won fair and square after McBane catches the garter Russell tosses into the audience). But Savage doesn’t play by the rules – particularly where women are concerned. He also has no compunction about advertising his playful dishonesty; recklessly driving his jeep with Russell in tow past McBane and the other envious flyers. If McBane wanted to, he could choose to hate Savage on principle alone. Alas, McBane is the more introspective and forgiving sort; recognizing he could never play the part of the lone wolf convincingly. Hence, he allows Savage to have his kicks and way with the ‘fate’ life has dealt them both.
The device of a movie flashback can reveal new information otherwise unable to be relayed to the audience. But in Fate is the Hunter’s case it just takes up a fair chunk of the movie’s runtime; perhaps, because without it Medford’s screenplay really doesn’t have all that much to say and has already painted itself into an impossible narrative corner. Returning to the present, McBane attempts to give testimony at the public inquest, contrary to the wishes of his superiors; upholding Savage’s honor and integrity by suggesting Martha’s theory of a double engine failure moments before the crash is actually correct, despite the physical evidence: Flight 22’s second engine was recovered from the wreck virtually intact and seemingly in perfect working order. To prove his point, McBane elects to take an empty plane – Consolidated’s Flight 24 – on the same fateful trajectory as its predecessor, encouraging Martha to partake in his experiment. She understandable refuses out of fear at first, but then comes to McBane’s aid with cathartic professionalism. With McBane assuming Savage’s role, the crew reenact the fateful last moments of Flight 22; Martha bringing McBane a cup of coffee and placing it at arm’s reach, just as she had done for Savage.
As the first engine deliberately cuts out, Flight 24 experiences some minor turbulence, toppling the coffee cup and spilling its contents inside the control panel. This short circuits not only engine number two, but also the plane’s radar communications. McBane fires up the undamaged engine and manages to land his plane successfully. Realizing a coffee cup and a design flaw in the control panel played an integral role in the crash, McBane is confident Savage will be cleared of any wrong doing. He did his best in an impossible situation; failing only because ‘fate’ had conspired against him. In these final moments, McBane encourages Martha to meet the others who were instrumental in believing in his investigation when almost everyone else merely sought the quickest route to a convenient scapegoat.
Fate is the Hunter lacks in consistent dramatic impetus, marginally made up by its taut and convincing performances. Of these, Glenn Ford’s is the standout and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette and Rod Taylor. These are very fine actors capable of more than the Harold Medford screenplay offers them. At times, the exchange of dialogue is woefully absent of something intelligent to say, the riveting high-stakes drama diffused into marginal conversations that systematically drag us from one plot point to the next with virtually no suspense. The story waffles in banal and occasionally, dead end vignettes; the pointless inclusion of Jane Russell (who is featured with a song no less) really stalling the plot. Fate is the Hunter’s ace in the hole is Milton Krasner’s superb B&W cinematography; always discovering fascinating ways to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope with compelling compositions. When all else fails, we can admire and appreciate the look of this movie, even as its plot continues to lumber from one boring backstory to the next.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via their alliance with 2oth Century-Fox, yields a middling 1080p transfer. The pluses: razor sharp clarity and consistent contrast levels - very rich, deep and velvety blacks and whites that are never blooming. Although this transfer reveals a stellar amount of fine detail throughout and considerable amounts of indigenous film grain accurately rendered, the image is also infrequently marred by gate weave and wobble, and, vertical streaks and modeling; also plagued by a barrage of age-related nicks, chips and scratches. Honestly, a simple (though somewhat costly) blue wash would have filled in a lot of these time-inflicted anomalies. Fox, however, seems to be slipping back into its habit of ‘hit or miss’ remastering, depending on how valid they believe a title is for receiving the full treatment. The bigger transgressor here is the 1.0 DTS audio; very strident sounding. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse score is grating on the ear. Jane Russell’s song is painfully screechy. Extras include TT’s isolated score and an audio commentary featuring Nick Redman and co-star Nancy Kwan.
Now for the biggest reason of all to buy this disc: Brian Jamieson’s lyrical ‘letter of introduction’ to the world of, Nancy Kwan – “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey” (2010) – a seminal biography of this Eurasian/American beauty who defied Hollywood’s racial barriers and stereotypes to dazzle us in films like The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). Kwan’s poignant and largely untold story is the sort of rags to riches from which both daydreams and fairytales are stitched together. However, like the best of fantasy, Kwan’s familial saga is also tinged in heartrending tragedy – though arguably, never personal regrets.
Ironically, few biographical accounts aspire to breathe life into their subject matter. Jamieson’s is the exception to this rule: a superbly relayed, evocative valentine to Nancy Kwan: his juxtaposition of Kwan’s career with her more intimate and probing search beyond those bittersweet kernels of truth, suppressed in youth, are the starburst in Kwan’s own sunset of middle-age exploration, and, at the crux of this poignant cinematic memoire. I’ll just go on record here and state that To Whom It May Concern could so easily have been a standalone Twilight Time release, or paired up with either of the aforementioned undisputed hits in Kwan’s movie repertoire.
Here is a tale so clearly told by people in love with Nancy Kwan; culled from a myriad of personal and unvarnished reflections put forth by family and friends – also from Kwan herself, and introspectively narrated by TT’s Nick Redman, who adds an immeasurable air of authority to this conversation. Kwan’s own 2008 return to Hong Kong, for the ballet interpretation of Suzie Wong, provides the momentum, as well as bookends for this outpouring of personal reflection. While I didn’t particularly care for Fate is the Hunter, I absolutely adored To Whom It May Concern. It is an expressively joyful, yet angst-ridden, life-affirming masterpiece. Better still, great care has been taken to remaster this biography in hi-def. The 1080p image is, for the most part, breathtaking. Inserts from Kwan’s movie classics looks incredible. I was blown away by the remarkable clarity in Flower Drum Song. Why this movie has yet to materialize on Blu-ray is beyond me! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 5+
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 4.5