The disaster movie.
You knew it was going to show up on the 101 Action Movies list sooner or later… well here it is, with this star-studded, engaging film based on the novel by Arthur Hailey and adapted for the screen and directed by George Seaton. It was also nominated for a slew of Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Music for Alfred Newman, Costume Design, Film Editing, and two nominations for Best Supporting Actress, one of which won, Helen Hayes for the elderly plane jumping stowaway, Ada Quonsett.
The film is set in and around an unnamed airport, and the folks who work there. The entire place is run by Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) who is trying to balance his job with his crumbling marriage, and tonight it’s going to get this much worse. It seems the worst snow storm in 25 years is hitting, and he’s fighting to keep the planes in the air and landing safely.
When a plane lands, but turns to quickly off the runway and gets mired in the snow, Bakersfeld has to shut down the lane, call in his best man Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), figure out how to get the plane unstuck, and deal with angry suburbanites when they have to open the auxiliary runway that rattles windows and cracks dishes.
But it’s about to get worse…
Womanizing captain Vernon Dermerset (Dean Martin, YES!) is seeing over a flight to Rome. In the airport below, his wife, Sarah (Barbara Hale), on the plane with him, his stewardess mistress Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset) who has just revealed to him she’s pregnant. He also learns they have a stowaway aboard in the person of Mrs. Quonsett, and a down-on-his-luck unstable war vet, D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) who has just taken out a huge life insurance policy on himself and sent it to his wife, while he hides an explosive device in his attaché case.
The film deftly interweaves all manner of story threads, some light, some dark, making a tapestry that puts a very human face on the disaster picture. You get to know the characters, as the film, despite throwing you right into the troubles of the snow-bound airport right away, lets you settle in and become attached to the variety of life that makes up both sides of airport life, the passengers and the professionals intent on getting them to their destinations.
Nowadays, next to none of this would happen in an airport, the security is incredibly lax, though Harry Standish (Lloyd Nolan) definitely knows his job, and it is he who puts Mel and Tanya onto the possibility of a threat aboard the Rome-bound flight.
There are all manner of split-screens put at play here while folks chat on the phone with one another, which just made me smile every time it happened. It just felt so wonderfully 70s.
Even with a massive cast like this, the film makes sure that each of them gets their moments, and by film’s end all the little story threads are tied off, either with dialogue, or a look.
While the disaster film has continued on, I think perhaps the disaster films of the 70s were some of the best, and in fact, having had a glance ahead on the list, I know there are more coming…
What is your favorite disaster film?