“AIRPORT” (1970) Review

“AIRPORT” (1970) Review

According to many film critics and fans, the 1970 movie, “AIRPORT”, generated what is known in Hollywood as the first in the “disaster film” genre. Is this true? From a certain point of view. “AIRPORT” was not the first Hollywood disaster movie ever made. But it did kick start a whole slew of them that Hollywood churned out during the 1970s.

Based upon Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, “AIRPORT” told the story of the manager of a fictional airport near Chicago named Mel Bakersfield, who is trying to keep the airport open during a snowstorm. Bakerfield not only has to deal with the bad weather’s effect upon the airport; but also local suburban residents, who want to permanently shut down one of the runways; an elderly lady who also happens to be a habitual stowaway; a failing marriage; a hostile brother-in-law, who is an airline pilot; and a suicidal bomber who plots to blow up a Rome-bound Boeing 707 airliner in flight. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is Bakersfield’s brother-in-law, Vernon Demarest, is a tool, he is having an affair with a beautiful young English-born stewardess named Gwen Meighen. And both had been assigned to the Rome-bound flight about Trans Global Airline (TGA)’s flagship, the Golden Argosy. Bakersfield’s own marriage is in trouble, due to his long working habits. Even worse, he is attracted to TGA’s customer relations agent, Tanya Livingston. Meanwhile, former demolitions expert D.O. Guerrero has hit hard times due to unemployment and a history of mental illness. In a desperate bid to provide for his long-suffering wife, Inez, he buys life insurance with the intent of committing suicide by blowing up the Golden Argosy over the Atlantic Ocean, so that his wife, Inez will collect the $225,000 insurance money.

I would not be surprised if many movie fans and film critics have dismissed “AIRPORT” after forty-six years. Superficially, it is the type of film that many would either dismiss today as “dated” or simply melodramatic trash. Yes, “AIRPORT” is filled with melodrama. But if I must be honest, I would regard it as classy melodrama. Mature. Yes, the movie is filled with infidelity, strained marriages and unrequited love. But all topics are treated with both class and a brutal honesty by writer-director George Seaton that I found rather surprising.

This especially seemed to be the case in the story line regarding Vernon Demarest and his mistress, Gwen Meighen. Their discussion of her pregnancy and and a possible abortion struck me as very mature . . . and honest. I could also say the same about the story line regarding Mel and Cindy Bakersfield’s failing marriage. What I liked about this story line is that despite Cindy’s bitching about Mel’s working habits, I realized that she had a very good reason to feel bitter. I also felt a good deal of sympathy toward Mel’s attraction to customer relations agent, Tanya Livingston. More importantly, both husband and wife managed to come to the conclusion that divorce was their only option without any overblown angst. Seaton also managed to portray D.O. and Inez Guerrero with an honest eye and show how their money troubles and his emotional instability has been a strain on their marriage. Within all of this melodrama, “AIRPORT” provided some laughs in the story arc about Tanya’s dealings with a charming old widow named Mrs. Ada Quonsett, and her penchant for stowing aboard many of the airline’s flights. But even her story arc takes a serious turn when she decides to sneak about the Golden Argosy’s flight to Rome and finds herself in a seat next to Guerrero.

The movie also benefited from attention paid to the detail of day-to-day airport and airline operations, the response to a paralyzing snowstorm, a runway blocked by a disabled airplane, environmental concerns over noise pollution, and an attempt to blow up an airliner. What I find really interesting is how the film’s plot allowed the main characters’ personal stories to intertwine with scenes that featured decisions being made minute-by-minute by the airport and airline staffs, operations and maintenance crews, flight crews, and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers. This balancing act seemed to be at its supreme in the story arc featuring D.O. Guerrero’s attempt to bomb the Rome flight. I was amazed at how the other arcs featuring Mrs. Ada Quonsett, Vern Demerest and Gwen Meighen’s affair, and the disabled plane blocking the runway managed to seamlessly intertwine with Guerrero’s story. Not only does one have author Arthur Hailey to thank, but also George Seaton, who made this happen on screen due to his Oscar nominated screenplay and excellent direction.

Was there anything about “AIRPORT” that I disliked? Or found wanting? I had nothing against Edith Head’s costumes for the film. Quite frankly, I found them very attractive. But for the likes of me, I cannot understand why her work for this film was nominated in the first place. Her designs were not that mind boggling. But my real complaint about this movie were some of the performances. I have nothing against the performances by the movie’s stars and major supporting cast members. But I found those performances by many of the minor supporting cast either wooden or hammy. Their performances reminded me of those I had encountered among the minor cast members in the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with those performances of the movie’s stars and major supporting cast members. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Gary Collins, Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, and Barbara Hale. Jean Seberg gave an excellent performance as customers relations agent Tanya Livingston, especially in her major scene with Helen Haynes. The latter received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the charming, yet cunning Ada Quonsett. Star Burt Lancaster held the movie together with a commanding performance and at the same time, was perfectly emotional in his scenes with Dana Wynter, who portrayed his wife. Speaking of Ms. Wynter, she did an excellent job of conveying Cindy Bakersfield’s emotional turmoil as an estranged wife. Jacqueline Bisset was spot on as stewardess Gwen Meighen, who not only found herself pregnant, but also in love with her unborn baby’s married father. Maureen Stapleton received several nominations and a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award as Guerrero’s long-suffering wife. Although I admired her performance very much, I found her last scene a bit on the hammy side.

However, my favorite performances came from three cast members – Van Heflin, George Kennedy and especially Dean Martin. I am amazed that Heflin did not receive an acting award or nomination as the emotionally damaged D.O. Guerrero, who had decided to solve his problems with an act of violence. Heflin did an excellent job of portraying a man barely able to keep his emotions in check, yet beaten down by the bad luck in his life. George Kennedy received several acting nominations as the gregarious, yet very intelligent airline mechanic, Joe Patroni. In fact, I believe he gave the most entertaining performance in the movie. But if there is one performance I believe deserved an acting nomination or award, it came from Dean Martin. His portrayal of pilot Vern Demerest struck me as the most complex character in the movie. He conveyed the different aspects of Demerest’s personality – arrogance, temperamental, competency, compassionate and loving – with such great skill that it seemed a crime that he was never acknowledged for his work.

After my recent viewing of “AIRPORT”, I found myself wondering why I had ignored it for so long. It really is a first-rate movie, thanks to George Seaton’s adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel and skillful direction. The movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast that included Burt Lancaster, Helen Haynes, George Kennedy and Dean Martin. “AIRPORT” might have a few flaws, but after forty years or so, I still believe it is one of the best disaster films I have ever seen . . . period. And at the moment, I cannot even think of any other film that might be its equal or superior.

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965.

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like “SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

Four years after the success of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, producer John Bradbourne focused his attention upon adapting another Agatha Christie novel for the screen. In the end, he decided to adapt Christie’s 1937 novel, ”DEATH ON THE NILE”

Instead of bringing back Sidney Lumet to direct, Bradbourne hired journeyman action director John Guillermin to helm the new film. And instead of re-casting Albert Finney, Bradbourne hired Peter Ustinov for the pivotal role of Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. It would turn out to be the first of six times he would portray the character. The ironic thing about ”DEATH ON THE NILE” is that although ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” had received more acclaim – the point of being regarded as the finest adaptation of any Christie novel – my heart belongs first and foremost to the 1978 movie.

One might ask – how can that be? ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is highly regarded by critics and moviegoers alike. It even managed to collect a few Academy Awards. And its story – a revenge plot that centered around the past kidnapping of a five year-old child – has a great deal of pathos and depth. Yet . . . my favorite Christie movie is still ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Its production never struck me as over-the-top as the 1974 movie. And I believe that it perfectly matched the movie’s plot about Poirot’s efforts to solve the murder of a wealthy Anglo-American heiress during a luxury cruise down the Nile River. Most importantly, because the actor portraying Poirot came from Central European stock, he WAS NOT inclined to portray the detective in an exaggerated manner that British and American actors like Finney and Tony Randall were prone to do. But if I must be honest, I simply enjoyed the movie’s adaptation and Guillermin’s direction.

As I had stated earlier, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, during a cruise down the Nile River. A vacationing Hercule Poirot did not take very long to discover that most of the passengers either bore a grudge against the heiress or wanted something she possessed. The suspects included Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend who was once engaged to her new husband Simon Doyle; Linnet’s American attorney Andrew Pennington, who has been embezzling money from her inheritance before her marriage; a wealthy American dowager and kleptomaniac Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler, who has an eye for Linnet’s pearls; Miss Bowers, Mrs. Van Schuyler’s companion, whose father had been ruined by Linnet’s father; Salome Otterbourne, an alcoholic novelist who is being sued for libel by Linnet; Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs. Otterbourne’s embittered, yet devoted daughter; James Ferguson, a young Communist who resents Linnet’s wealth; Dr. Ludvig Bessner, a Swiss clinical doctor whose methods that Linnet has spoken against; and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s French maid that is being prevented from marrying a man who lives in Egypt. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; Colonel Race, a friend of Poirot and a fellow detective, who is acting as a representative for Linnet’s British attorneys; and Poirot. Most of them had a reason to kill Linnet Doyle . . . and the opportunity to kill her, save one.

Unlike ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, not all of the characters featured in Christie’s 1937 novel appeared in the 1978 film. Which did not bother me, since the deleted literary characters had struck me as the least interesting. Ironically, many of these deleted characters had the strongest motives to murder Linnet Doyle in the novel. Only Jacqueline de Bellefort, Andrew Pennington and Mrs. Van Schuyler made the transition from novel to movie with their motives intact. Another change from the novel resulted in ALL of the suspects either harboring a reason to kill Linnet. Although, I must admit that I found Jim Ferguson’s motive rather slim. Political and economical repugnance toward an obvious capitalist like Linnet Doyle as a motive seemed to be stretching it a bit to me. And most of the suspects, as Poirot revealed, had an opportunity to commit the deed. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (who did not receive credit for his work on the ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” screenplay) may have went a bit too far with this scenario. But if I must be perfectly honest, I have nothing against these changes. In fact, they made the movie a little more entertaining for me.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” had a first-rate cast that had obviously enjoyed themselves. This especially seemed to be the case with Bette Davis, who portrayed Mrs. Van Schuyler. The literary version of the character seemed to be a humorless tyrant. Davis’ version of the character possessed a sly, yet malicious sense of humor that she constantly used to torment her long suffering companion, Miss Bowers. Yet, Davis also gave Mrs. Van Schuyler a sense of privilege to make her slightly autocratic. Another performance that I found highly entertaining, although flamboyant, belonged to Angela Landsbury (the future Jane Marple and the future Jessica Fletcher) as the alcoholic has-been novelist, Salome Otterbourne. Did Landsbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Otterbourne struck me as over-the-top? Yep. In spades. Did I care? Not really. Why? Because the literary version of Salome Otterbourne struck me as even more over-the-top . . . and less likeable. Whereas Angela Landsbury gaven a flamboyant performance, George Kennedy gave a far more restrained one as Andrew Pennington, Linnet Doyle’s embezzling American attorney. One of my favorite scenes involving Kennedy featured a moment when Pennington reacted to Simon Doyle’s admission of a lack of business skills. Anyone could see Pennington’s idea of dealing with the more gullible Doyle instead of Linnet, gleaming in Kennedy’s eyes.

In my review of the James Bond movie, ”MOONRAKER”, I had accused Lois Chiles of giving a slightly wooden performance. Granted, I would never view her as an exceptional actress, I must admit that she gave a much better performance in ”DEATH ON THE NILE”, as the wealthy and slightly autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The amazing thing about Chiles’ performance was that she could have easily portrayed Linnet as a one-note bitch. Instead, the actress managed to successfully convey more complexities into her character, also revealing a charming woman, a good friend (somewhat), and a warm and passionate spouse. Simon MacCorkindale gave a solid performance as the straight-forward Simon Doyle – Jacqueline’s former fiancé and Linnet’s new husband. MacCorkindale not only conveyed Simon’s charm, but also the character’s simple nature, lack of imagination and an inability to realize how much he had truly hurt his former fiancée. If it were not for Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot, I would have declared Mia Farrow’s performance as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort as the best one in the movie. Instead, I will simply state that I believe she gave the second best performance. Emotionally, her Jacqueline seemed to be all over the map – angry, resentful, passionate, vindictive, remorseful and giddily in love. Yet somehow, Farrow managed to keep the many facets of Jackie’s personality in control and not allow them to overwhelm her. I especially enjoyed her interactions with Ustinov, as she portrayed a reluctant disciple to his mentor. The pair had an interesting and strong screen chemisty.

I could also say the same about Ustinov’s interactions with David Niven, who portrayed fellow detective Colonel Race. Niven’s portrayal was charming and at the same time, very humorous. The interesting thing is that Ustinov used to be Niven’s batman (personal servant to a commissioned military officer) during World War II before the pair became good friends. This friendship permeated their scenes together. But more importantly, Peter Ustinov took the role of Hercule Poirot and made it his own. Just as David Suchet would do nearly two decades later. Ustinov managed to inject his own brand of humor into the role without wallowing in some caricature of the Continental European. More importantly, I believe that Ustinov did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s intelligence, sense of justice and formidable personality.

Like its 1974 predecessor, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” could boast a superb production, thanks to the crew that John Bradbourne had hired. Anthony Powell designed the movie’s costumes, evoking an era set during the early 1930s. I must admit that I found that interesting, considering that the novel had been published in 1937 and possibly written in 1936. Although a good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Egypt, I had been surprised to learn that many of the scenes aboard the S.S. Karnak had been filmed in England – both interiors and exteriors. It was a credit to both cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designers Peter Murton, along with Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow that the film managed to convey the movie’s setting of a small and exclusive Nile River steamboat with such clarity and elegance.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” was not without its flaws. Well, I can only think of one at the moment. Actor I.S. Johar portrayed the S.S. Karnak’s unnamed manager. Unfortunately, Johar’s portrayal of the steamboat’s manager invoked strong memories of the many actors and actresses of non-European descent that found themselves stuck in comic relief roles during the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And ”DEATH ON THE NILE” had been filmed in 1977 and released in 1978. Johar found himself stuck in a clichéd and humiliating role and I suspect that Guillermin, Schaffer and Bradbourne are to blame for allowing such a role in the film.

But you know what? Despite that one major complaint, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” ended up becoming my favorite adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It may not be considered the best among film critics and moviegoers. But then again, I have never been inclined to blindly follow popular opinion.