By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Terror in the skies.
During a major snowstorm at Chicago’s Lincoln International Airport manager Al Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) must scramble to keep the place open while trying to get a disabled jet plane that is stuck in the snow off the runway. Meanwhile on a flight headed for Italy there’s the mentally unhinged Guerrero (Van Heflin) sitting with a bomb in his briefcase set to go off and explode the airplane and killing everyone inside, so that his family back home can collect on the insurance money.
The film is based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey and despite some critics, like Pauline Kael, hating it for its soap opera-like dramatics I still came away feeling it was perfect crackerjack entertainment. The characters on the plane are quite diverse with unique problems and personalities making them seem like real people that the viewer becomes genuinely concerned for. The special effects, particularly those done inside the plane, are effective and the film has a nice dramedy balance.
The only drawback, and I hesitate to bring this up as I think they did the best they could’ve done under the circumstances, are the special effects dealing with the snow storm. It was shot at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport during the winter of 1969, but unfortunately the whole time the film crew was there the weather remained sunny forcing them to eventually have plastic snow shown falling while the in the background the sky remains crystal clear and sunny. The snow shown falling during the nighttime scenes is equally problematic. I resided for many years in the North Country and I know that when it snows at night the sky gives off a bright white glow and it’s never pitch black like it is here.
The film was considered innovative at the time for its use of the split-screen particularly when it would show people talking on the phone to each other. Director George Seaton wisely doesn’t overplay this and uses the device sparingly for the most part however the segment where Lancaster is shown in one square talking to his wife, who is in another square along with their two daughters who each pop-up in their own individual squares it starts to resemble the opening to ‘The Brady Bunch’.
The acting by the female performers is quite strong. I was really impressed with Jean Seberg, her career started back in 1958 when she beat out 18,000 other applicants to get the starring role in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan despite her lack of acting experience and although her performance in that film was lambasted by the critics I felt here she was solid and she could’ve easily carried the film during the scenes at the airport without Lancaster’s presence, who plays her boss, being needed at all.
Jaqueline Bisset is equally good as the stewardess who knows how to think on her feet. I liked how this role didn’t take advantage of her looks or sexiness and instead kept it focused solely on her dramatic acting ability and I loved her shoulder length hair cut here as opposed to her really long hair style that she usually sports. Helen Hayes is hammy as the old lady stowaway, which netted her an Oscar, but Maureen Stapleton, who was also nominated for best supporting actress, is quite good too. Her talents lie more in her expressive face particularly the moment when she looks out the airport window and witnesses the plane carrying her husband, who she knows has a bomb, take off.
Dean Martin is excellent on the male end. Typically he comes off as tipsy and laid-back, but here he surprisingly takes the reins and helps propel the picture. George Kennedy is also surprisingly strong. Most of the time his presence amounts to nothing more than token supporting parts, but here he plays the gruff, brash airline mechanic to great effect and could help explain why his character was the only one to appear in all four airport movies.
The film does come off like it was released in the ‘50s instead of the 70s by having a cast that was mostly past their prime, but it’s by far the best disaster flick from the ‘70s, and there were a lot of them, as well as better than any of the three sequels that followed it.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: March 5, 1970
Runtime: 2Hours 17Minutes
Director: George Seaton
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video