Yeah, I Sat Through It Again: Airport (1970)

Burt Lancaster: We've also had ten inches of snow in the last 24 hours!
Dean Martin: Anchorage had twice as much and they're clean.
Lancaster: They've got twice the equipment!
Martin: Well, then get some more.
Lancaster: This isn't Alaska! You don't spend an extra two million dollars to get some machinery you might use once in ten years!

Why not? They do it in the movie industry all the time...

I grew up in heyday of the disaster movie, though I must admit that I didn't get to see many of the earlier "better" or bigger ones, like The Towering Inferno or Earthquake, until they were shown on television. The ones I got to see in theatres were the later ones, like Rollercoaster (in Sensurround!) and Meteor, when the genre had been reduced to even more of a joke than it started out as being. And of the four Airport flicks released in the decade, the only one I saw theatrically was the last one involving the Concorde. The first three? TV, though it really has been a long time since I have seen one. Seeing as how the quartet showed up in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film -- of which I am doing an A-Z run-through -- I figured that the quarter-century which has passed since I last viewed one of the flicks was long enough to warrant a fresh look. And, lo and behold, TCM just happened to have the original Airport on last week as part of their Leading Man series (though whether it was Burt or Dean they were profiling, or both, I am not sure...)

Based on Arthur Hailey's bestseller, Airport plays today exactly like the seven-hour flight to Rome that is being portrayed in the film. I like long, epic films, but I like long films when the characters and the actions in the film warrant such lengthy attention to detail. Rote performances, by-the-numbers screenplay cliches and an attache case bomb wielded by a whiny Van Heflin (though what happens with that bomb actually works quite well) only point up just how little actually happens over the course of 137 minutes. Lancaster, whose character runs the airport with his trademarked fast-talk and gritted teeth toughness, is probably headed for divorce, only he is far too busy with his job to notice it. (His wife is Dana Wynter, who, 12 years after being simply stunning in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was still "getting it done". So, Burt's character is a big fool, even if he has Jean Seberg hanging about with him.) Martin has a wife, but he is banging Jackie Bisset, so kudos to him -- however, he has knocked her up in a plot device which I believe is only in place to hang some anti-abortion sentiments (known meekly in this film as "getting something done about it." (OK, and to add drama to her eventual injury later in the film.) George Kennedy chews on cigars, like George Kennedy is apt to do, and spends much of the movie trying to dig a stranded plane out of a snow-strewn runway.

This film was given 10 what-the-fuck?! nominations for the 1971 Academy Awards, including screenplay and picture noms, and an especially incredulous one for Maureen Stapleton, who basically spends the entire length of the film looking like a grounded flounder gasping for breath as she copes with husband Heflin's sweat-filled defection to Rome with a briefcase bomb. It's only too, too convenient that he used to be a demolition expert, though his nervous behavior marks him as a failed insurance agent and not a man that used to handle high explosives for a living, who should have a far cooler demeanor, whether he is desperately trying to get his family out of poverty by blowing himself up for the insurance money or not. The film's sole win at the Oscars was for Miss Helen Hayes, and it is here where I actually agree with the Academy, because she is a delight and the single reason why the picture should still be seen. If her character's actions seem a little ridiculous, that's OK, because Hayes disarms the audience in much the same manner that her character catches everyone in the airport off-guard, scooting her way from terminal to terminal and always able to take advantage of even the slightest slip in security to gain herself access to free plane rides over and over again. Her histrionic scenes with Bisset are the very best part of the film (though Bisset's scene with a bathtowel earlier on runs a close second). Despite Lancaster's drive, Hayes runs this airport by sheer will and good old-fashioned movie star savvy.

Hmm, perhaps its a good thing that she didn't have the suitcase bomb. Or a bad thing: It might have been a far more interesting movie.

Airport (1970) Dir: George Seaton
Cinema 4 Rating: 5


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