Sunday 5 April 2020

Movie Review: Airport (1970)

A grand multi-story disaster epic, Airport helped formulate the genre template. A star-studded cast and multiple overlapping emergencies sustain the thrills over one long night.

The setting is Chicago's Lincoln International Airport during a snowstorm. Airport Manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is struggling to keep the airport functional, an objective made difficult when a taxiing airplane gets stuck in the snow and blocks the airport's main Runway 29. The alternative Runway 22 is shorter and impacts a surrounding community. Mel calls upon chief maintenance mechanic Patroni (George Kennedy) to help unwedge the Boeing 707.

Mel's brother-in-law is womanizing pilot Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who is about to take charge of an overnight flight to Rome. Vernon is having an affair with stewardess Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), and she reveals her pregnancy just before departure. Mel's marriage to his wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) is falling apart, allowing him to evolve his relationship with airline customer service representative Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg).

Meanwhile Tanya has to deal with the elderly Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), who is apprehended as a serial stowaway but anyway boards Vernon's flight. But most worrisome is depressed businessman D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), who plans to kill himself with a briefcase bomb in order for his wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton) to benefit from insurance money. As Vernon deals with in-flight emergencies, Mel and Patroni frantically work to reopen Runway 29, now an urgent matter of life and death.

The adaptation of Arthur Hailey's 1968 book is brought to the screen by director George Seaton, who also wrote the surprisingly taut screenplay. The film created the blueprint for a decade-long cycle of disaster movies, spawned three direct but lesser sequels, and inspired several parodiesAirport also heralded the blockbuster era to come, well-produced but easy-to-digest escapism loved by audiences and generating mass profits on a previously unimaginable scale.

And despite the stiff dialogue, lack of any narrative depth beyond the here and now, and some cringe-worthy corporate boosterism, there is no denying the film's appeal. The cast members are stereotyped but in good form, Lancaster, Martin, Kennedy and Heflin playing to their pre-established strengths, while Seaton fills the screen with activity, inside the terminal, on the tarmac, and on-board the flights, all in gorgeous technicolor. Frequent use of split screens, relatively accurate technical jargon, and a packed agenda of colliding personal and work emergencies easily occupy the 136 minutes of running time.

With action and events moving briskly, the memorable moments are plentiful. Helen Hayes earns many of them, and claimed a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a delicately funny turn as the unlikely stowaway Ada. Her repertoire of tricks to get past every checkpoint plus a disarming charm and conversational gifts are put to good use on the ground and in the air.

Dean Martin makes the most of the cocky Vernon coming to terms with Gwen's pregnancy, and gets another well-crafted highlight in his attempt to talk down Guerrero.

As the man in the middle of it all, Mel's agitation with bureaucrats and politicians comes to a satisfying boil when a clueless Commissioner chooses the worst possible time to suggest the airport's closure. And after a few rounds of bickering, Mel and Cindy as a husband and wife presiding over a wrecked marriage carve out a surprisingly adult resolution.

And finally George Kennedy creates the Patroni legend with his full-throttled attempt to prod the stranded Boeing 707 into motion, the irresistible force of one man determined to triumph over a mammoth immovable object. The night will not be over until the cigar is well and truly chomped.

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  1. I LOVE this film and always have since the first time I saw it when I was just a kid! Even with that devotion to it though the Best Picture nomination was just crazy. It's a big crowd pleasing entertainment with no aspirations to Art and that's just as it should be.

    It was very influential though I think it was seen as sort of a fluke until The Poseidon Adventure followed it up earning equally large numbers and a famous, but not quite as famous, cast.

    I still watch it about once a year, I own the entire series boxed in the humorously titled Airport Terminal Pack, and derive pleasure from it each time.

    Helen Hayes is a delight even if her performance is a broad vaudeville turn. She puts it over with elfin charm. But for me Maureen Stapleton and Van Heflin bring the real emotion. Their scene in the restaurant just before he leaves is lovely and her frantic run through the airport to try and stop him and reaction when she finds he's on the plane is beautifully done. Simple, quiet and restrained but devastating.

    The scene you mentioned with Burt Lancaster and Dana Wynter is expertly played by both and nicely frank for an early 70's big budget movie.

    Plus Jacqueline Bissett is your dream stewardess! The chicest woman to fly the friendly skies. She even makes that outfit work!

    1. Agreed, this is a really easy film to sit back and enjoy. Everything just works, exactly as intended in that intentional over-the-top manner, with some charming clunkiness.


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