“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.

Advertisements

“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959) Review

large_north_by_northwest_blu-ray1n

 

“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959) Review

When producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman first set about creating the James Bond movie franchise, author Ian Fleming – who had written the novels – suggested they hire Hollywood legend, Cary Grant, for the role of the famed British agent. I do not know whether Broccoli and Saltzman seriously considered Fleming’s suggestion, but I cannot help but wonder if had seen the actor in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, “NORTH BY NORTHWEST”.

“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” originated with a deal Hitchcock had with MGM Studios to do a film version of Hammond Innes’ novel, “The Wreck of the Mary Deare”. Hitchcock recruited a friend of his, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, to write the script. But after several weeks, Lehman found himself unable to write an adaptation. Longing to work with Lehman, Hitchcock suggested that he write something else – namely the ultimate “Hitchcock film”. The results turned out to be a chase film featuring an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit.

The movie’s story begins with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill being mistaken for a U.S. government agent named George Kaplan, when he summons a hotel bellhop, who is paging Kaplan at the same time. Two enemy agents named Valerian and Licht kidnap Thornhill and take him to their superior, a major foreign spy named Phillip Vandamm, who is using the Long Island home of a man named Lester Townsend for this meeting. When Thornhill continues to insist that he is not George Kaplan, Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard, along with Valerian and Licht to stage a drunk driving death for ad executive. The attempt fails and Thornhill escapes. And when Thornhill fails to convince the law that he had been kidnapped, he sets out to clear his name. He tracks the real Lester Townsend to the United Nations, but the latter is killed by one of Vandamm’s henchman. Thornhill is accused of the crime and he flees. When he learns that Kaplan had checked into a hotel in Chicago, he boards the 20th Century Limited, where he meets an attractive woman named Eve Kendall. She helps him evade the police upon their arrival in Chicago. But unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard.

Author and journalist Nick Clooney once described “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” as Alfred Hitchcock’s “most stylish thriller, if not his best”. And I have to agree. “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” proved to be an exciting chase film and travelogue that started in Manhattan and Long Island, and ended up on the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thanks to Lehman’s screenplay, “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” brimmed with sharp dialogue and even sharper characterization. The movie’s opening, which featured Cary Grant’s Thornhill and his secretary engaged in a last minute meeting over his schedule on the streets of Manhattan, gave audience a pretty clear idea of the ad executive’s personality – charming, intelligent, arrogant and impatient. Thornhill is a character that cries for emotional development.

If I must be honest, the characters proved to be the movie’s biggest assets. As much as I like Lehman’s chase story of an innocent man trying to clear his name of murder, I feel that it has some questionable writing. In fact, some of its inconsistencies reminded me of such one would find in a James Bond movie. If Vandamm wanted Thornhill dead that badly, why arrange for the latter’s death at an isolated bus stop in the middle of the Indiana countryside . . . in broad daylight, using a crop duster? Why not have one of his minions quietly put a knife between his ribs on the streets of Chicago? Even arranging Thornhill’s death as a drunk driving incident seemed a bit over-the-top to me. Why not kill Thornhill first, pour alcohol on his body, set the car on fire before sending it over a ledge? I am not claiming to know how Lehman and Hitchcock should have handled these scenarios. But the methods they used for Vandamm’s attempts on Thornhill’s life struck me as similiar to the idiotic methods that many Bond villains used to kill the British agent.

I have to admit that Vandamm’s attempts on Thornhill’s life provided some of the movie’s more memorable moments. The attempt to pass off Thornhill’s death as a drunk driving incident had me on the edge of my seat and at the same, laughing rather hard. A “drunken” Cary Grant really did have me in stitches. I could also say the same about the sequence at the Chicago auction, following the dust cropper incident, in which Thornhill confronted Vandamm and Eve before being hauled away by cops for his hilarious disruption of the auction. The finale sequence at Mount Rushmore brimmed with Hitchcock’s usual style of suspense. But it was the crop duster sequence that truly impressed me. From a narrative point-of-view, the sequence seemed filled with questionable writing. But as a suspenseful and action sequence, I consider it a masterpiece. The most interesting aspect of the crop duster sequence seemed to be its beginning – that fascinating moment in which Thornhill stands at that isolated bus stop for several minutes, staring at another man who has appeared on the scene before the crop duster’s attack. I noticed that director Terence Young did not hesitate to copy it for one action sequence in the 1963 movie, “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”.

The crop duster sequence and many other scenes benefited from Robert Burks’ excellent photography. I was also impressed by George Tomasini’s editing, which struck me as especially effective in the Long Island, crop duster and Mount Rushmore sequences. Composer Bernard Herrmann, who once made an interesting comment on Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, collaborated on many Hitchcock’s films during a nine-year period between 1955 and 1964. One of those scores was the memorable one he wrote for “NORTH BY NORTHWEST”. His score blended well with the opening titled sequence created by Saul Bass.

But as I had stated earlier, the movie’s biggest strength turned out to be the cast. Both Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein made quite a sinister pair as Vadamm’s two henchmen, Valerian and Licht. Jessie Royce Landis, who was only seven years older than Cary Grant, gave quite a humorous and stylish performance as his witty mother, Mrs. Thornhill. Leo G. Carroll, who later became famous for the 1960s series “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, was perfect as the intelligent and manipulative spymaster, “the Professor”.

For me, there were four performances that stood out for me. Martin Landau gave his first stand-out performance as Vandamm’s observant, yet malevolent henchman, Leonard. Unless my eyes were deceiving me, Landau seemed to have given Leonard a slight homosexual subtext that I found interesting. In many ways, James Mason’s Vandamm seemed to be the perfect nemesis for Cary Grant’s Thornhill . . . especially with his silky voice, suave manners and good looks. But Mason made sure that the menace was always there behind the debonair facade. I must admit that Eva Marie Saint would have never been my first choice as the movie’s femme fatale, Eve Kendall. But I had forgotten that Saint was a first-rate actress and Oscar winner. I should not have been surprised by her ability to be chameleon and create a leading female character who seemed to be ahead of her time. However, the man of the hour proved to be Cary Grant. He has portrayed characters more complex than Roger Thornhill. But Lehman’s script still managed to provide plenty of bite to a role that began as a child in a man’s body and developed into a heroic and responsible man who managed to retain his wit. I think that Thornhill may prove to be one of my favorite Grant roles.

I do not feel that “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. But I cannot deny that I found it to be one of his most stylish and entertaining films. Not only did it feature memorable action sequences, humor and a superb cast led by Cary Grant; I feel that it could have easily served as a template for many James Bond movies throughout the years. I really look forward to watching the movie as many times possible in the future.