Category Archives: 1970s

Black Christmas (1974)

*. Without giving it credit for launching the slasher genre I think it’s still fair to say that Black Christmas was the first of its kind. The reason it’s less well known is that it was the unbelievable box office success of Halloween that really launched the genre properly. It is profitability that leads to imitation in the film business, and Black Christmas (released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, which I’m sure didn’t help) pretty much sank without a trace when it was released (they had trouble getting the title right: on television it premiered as Stranger in the House). It did turn a profit on its modest budget, but not enough for anyone to notice. Halloween would break the bank four years later. Then we were off to the races.
*. An aside: Director Bob Clark always said that he’d been friends with John Carpenter and had told him about his thoughts for a sequel to Black Christmas, which he didn’t want to do. It was to be called Halloween. He also said that Carpenter was a fan of the movie and had been influenced by it. I understand that Carpenter has said that he hadn’t seen it before making Halloween. Go figure.
*. Many of the separate ingredients we get here had been tasted before, most notably in the Italian gialli, but Black Christmas gave us the whole package of what would become a formula: the POV shots (perhaps first done in The Spiral Staircase), the calls coming from inside the house (actually done a year earlier in The Severed Arm), the threatened young people, the killer with one name (Billy) who strikes on a holiday, the scene where the last girl runs around discovering all the bodies at the end, even the business where she finds out that the front door is locked from the outside! How does that keep happening?
*. There are some variations on what would become the standard script. The last girl is no virgin but is actually thinking of getting an abortion. And in fact the women in this particular sorority-house massacre aren’t sexualized at all. We’re also in a transition zone from the mystery plot of the giallo, with various suspicious types and red herrings thrown in to the mix, to the lone psycho slayer who is basically a killing machine and, what’s more, is still alive at the end. (Kim Newman makes an interesting point: “The most heavily criticized aspect of Black Christmas — the transformation of the unknown psycho villain into a quasi-supernatural presence — would be seen as Halloween‘s strongest suit.”) But I think these just go to show how the genre hadn’t reached its final form yet.
*. Its claim to be the first slasher movie is what most people know about Black Christmas. But I don’t think that would be enough to have kept interest in it going, and even growing, for nearly fifty years. The fact is, this is a pretty good little horror movie. Halloween is scarier, but after that and maybe Nightmare on Elm Street I’d rate Black Christmas ahead of almost any other early slasher I can think of.
*. I realize that such comparisons aren’t saying much, so I’ll drop them now. What else is to like here?

*. Quite a lot. Bob Clark’s direction is solid if not overly stylish. He goes to the well maybe a bit too often in making jarring cutaways from violent action to something else going on at the same time, but not so much as to be annoying. I think what impresses me the most though is the treatment of space, meaning the wonderful interior of the house. The layout, and especially that old horror stand-by the staircase, are put to very good use. Moving up and down, and through the different floors and rooms, is quite effectively handled.
*. The cast is great, belying the low budget. Olivia Hussey is a cool and credible scream queen. Keir Dullea looks properly unbalanced. Maybe it’s his hair. John Saxon is typecast in a role he’d reprise in Nightmare on Elm Street. Andrea Martin, a comedian, is entirely believable in her second Canadian horror vehicle (after Cannibal Girls). But best of all is Margot Kidder. She’s playing an original character and pulls it off. Here’s a talent we never really saw enough of, for different reasons.
*. The script, which spent a lot of time in development, is both very simple (a killer, who remains unseen, is hiding in the attic of a sorority house), and quite complex in the manner of one of those later Hammer psychothrillers. I think this latter point is what Newman is adverting to when he calls the film “over-plotted.” But these two tendencies don’t work against each other.
*. Another disjunction is the absence of gore, while creating shock value out of some very explicit telephone calls. Those are really quite daring by the standards of 1974. As is the matter-of-fact way Jess’s decision to have an abortion is handled. Clark wanted realistic college students and I think he got them. These aren’t stereotypes of nerds or bimbos but seem like real people.
*. Sticking with the telephone messages, they did a lot of work on them, but it results in an odd mix that doesn’t sound like anything a single person’s voice (because it wasn’t).
*. The ending. Yes. Well. No, I don’t know what to make of it. It seems odd to say the least that Jess is left to recover from these traumatic events alone in the house. And did Jess kill Peter? Why was she screaming? Did she just faint? As for who Billy and Agnes are, I have no idea. The 2006 remake presents a grotesque backstory, which I think is irrelevant for appreciating this film. Billy is meant to be an enigma. That’s one reason we never see his face. If you find that frustrating, I understand. But this isn’t a movie that was ever going to tie things up neatly.
*. “If it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” One of the great thriller ad lines of the time. Up there with The Last House on the Left (1972): To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . .” and Phantasm (1979) “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Are there any great taglines anymore? I can’t think of many.
*. This is one of those rare movies where I can identify with many of the locations. It was shot in Toronto and there’s one scene shot at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower at Hart House. I walked underneath that every day for years. It’s a different kind of movie nostalgia.
*. Not a bad movie at all in absolute terms, and a very good one given the genre it did a lot to define. Why wasn’t it successful at the time? The American marketing didn’t help (it did very well under its original title in Canada). The lack of gore and general sense of restraint probably held it back. Carpenter just needed to tweak things a bit. A catchy jingle. Girls in underwear. And a killer that would be a physical presence (credited as “The Shape”) while at the same time less of this world. A hero, in other words. Not a Billy.

The Wiz (1978)

*. The Wiz is a real headscratcher of a movie: not so bad it’s good but rather full of both very good and very bad parts.
*. Its failure at the box office is often said to mark the end of the blaxploitation era, but I can’t see why, aside from the obvious fact that it has an all Black cast, this qualifies as a blaxploitation film. At the time it was the most expensive movie musical ever made. That’s not exploitation cinema.
*. Instead of blaxploitation what it strikes me as being is a cross between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Warriors. In other words, a movie very much of its time (all three films were released within the same six-month period). Such a pairing also helps explain some of the good-bad dichotomy in The Wiz, since Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the worst movies ever made and The Warriors is an underground classic.
*. Of course by this time the Hollywood musical was pretty much dead. Why? Rock might have had a hand in it. A great pop song isn’t a great show tune. Sgt. Pepper’s had a lot of great music, but not great musical music. And maybe the whole idea of a musical just seemed silly by the ’70s. Saturday Night Fever worked because the music was part of the story (or diegetic). In The Rocky Horror Music Show the music worked because the whole idea of the characters breaking out in song was part of the camp goofiness. But these are rare exceptions to the rule.
*. I think the music in The Wiz is mostly forgettable. There’s the “Ease on Down the Road” number, played three times, but that’s the only real show-stopper. Most of the rest of the stuff struck me as disposable. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” isn’t bad, but I didn’t see where it had much to do with the story. There’s a huge production number done at the plaza of the World Trade Center during what seems to be a hurricane (just look at Quincy Jones trying to smile while avoiding being blown off his piano bench). I had no idea what the point of it was. To mock changing fashions? It looks like the halftime show at the Super Bowl or the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And just as hard to sit through.

*. The production values are also all over the map. I love the Flying Monkeys imagined as a motorcycle gang. They’re great. But then on the subway platform the gang are attacked by garbage receptacles with teeth that wouldn’t look out of place on a high-school musical stage.
*. What can you say about the cast? Diana Ross is just another in a long, long list of pop/rock stars who for whatever reason can’t project charisma on screen. But she’s not bad, given the incongruity of her being older than we imagine Dorothy being while still preserving a childish asexuality. Michael Jackson I lump in the same category, but he’s unrecognizable anyway with a Reese’s cup stuck on his nose. It’s a relief when Richard Pryor shows up.
*. It bombed and was panned when it came out, but as with any movie this big and this strange it’s gone on to enjoy a bit of a cult afterlife. Which is something I can understand. There are certainly parts of it that stick in your head, even as it goes on too long and ends on a really low note with a corny message about believing in yourself and the power of positive thinking. I think The Wizard of Oz had more going on, though I wonder if that’s even a fair comparison. Has The Wiz become something timeless? Oddly enough, it may be getting there.

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

*. I’ve already commented on the early gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, what became later known as the Blood Trilogy: Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red. I’ve said I don’t think much of Lewis’s oeuvre outside of Two Thousand Maniacs! I didn’t want to bother saying anything more about him, but I had a copy of The Gore Gore Girls sitting around so I thought I’d look at it again and see if there was anything to add.
*. There isn’t much. This was basically the end of the line for Lewis, at least until Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat thirty years later. The intention here was to go in two different directions: more gore, and more humour. The two are not mutually exclusive. So, for example, one victim here has her ass pummeled bloody with a meat tenderizer. Another has her nipples cut off so that her breasts spout milk (regular milk from one breast, chocolate milk from another). This last gag is probably what The Gore Gore Girls is best known for today. In other words, it’s the highlight.
*. I get a sense of tired desperation from the proceedings, nicely captured in the final title card “We announce with pride: this movie is over!” It must have seemed like a relief to everyone involved. The gore and the jokes are just thrown up on the screen as though trying to force some kind of reaction. Lewis was played out, and all he could do was turn the dial up. So there’s blood and a bit of goofiness and lots of strippers.
*. The goofiness mainly comes by way of the dapper detective Abraham Gentry, played by Frank Kress. He’s actually kind of amusing, and even breaks down the fourth wall on a few occasions. For a Lewis movie it’s not a bad performance, though I think it’s the only movie Kress appeared in.
*. I guess I should also add that Henny Youngman also puts in an appearance. He isn’t quite as funny. Apparently they shot his stuff in a day and then he disowned any involvement in the project.
*. Then there are the strippers. There are a lot of stripper acts that I’m guessing were just put in to fill out the running time. They are actually quite sad because the fact is it takes a bit of work, and sometimes a lot of work, to make people (men or women) look sexy or glamorous onscreen. You can’t just throw them out there and tell them to shake their booty and take off their clothes and think it’s going to work. It doesn’t.
*. Having said all this, I’d still rate this as one of Lewis’s better movies, though nowhere Two Thousand Maniacs!, which was his only good one. Here there’s a bit of a giallo vibe what with the mysterious killer and their black gloves. The big reveal at the end might also be an homage to Bava’s Black Sunday but they don’t mention that on the DVD commentary and I wouldn’t want to bank on it. If you’re interested in what trash cinema of this period looked like then check this one out, but otherwise it’s skippable.

Serpico (1973)

*. In 1971, at the end of Dirty Harry, SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan tosses his badge into a quarry pond. In 1973 NYPD Detective Frank Serpico rejects the badge of a detective’s gold shield, opting for (very) early retirement to Switzerland.
*. Two dramatic acts of abnegation from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Harry and Frank are disgusted with “the system,” but for very different reasons. Harry would, of course, be back, his fight against the system becoming a part of American mythology. But there would be no second act for Serpico, whose story had the uncomfortable distinction of being true. I have to think there’s some larger meaning to this.
*. I have to say I find Serpico a dull watch today, but that’s more because of its genre than its politics. The progressive-activist biopic is almost the definition of Oscar bait. Norma Rae. Silkwood. Erin Brockovich. Milk. All stories about little guys taking on the corrupt/racist/homophobic/capitalist system. And I think they’re stories that are worthy of telling. I just can’t imagine watching any of these movies twice.
*. Al Pacino in his heyday, just after The Godfather and just before The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. He’s good here, if a little improbable. He looks so small, and one simply can’t credit him running down the bad guys on foot. Sidney Lumet was a last-minute replacement as director but Mr. New York City comes through, even if you have to grin at the way Serpico keeps arranging secret meetings at such conspicuous landmarks.
*. As with most of these biopic heroes, Serpico is a Christ figure. This is even more obvious because he’s undercover as a hippie so he even looks like a ’60s (or ’70s) Jesus. He’s also often wearing white, and the light on him is highlighted whereas the dirty cops are cast in shade. Actually, most of the supporting players are cast in shade. There’s some talent alongside Pacino but we don’t really notice them in such a one-man show. The women are so disposable they don’t even register. Though there’s no way he was going to let that magnificent sheepdog get away. He’s a keeper.
*. Everything looks dirty in that documentary-style grittiness that was, briefly, the style after The French Connection. And yet it’s not a movie that makes much of an impact today. Perhaps it’s too authentically of its time and place, meaning the pre-Disneyfied NYC. Fifty years later, bad cops are more likely to be exposed by cell phone footage than being outed by a whistleblower. I’m not sure if the medium has changed the message.

Deep Red (1975)

*. I’m sensitive, if mostly indifferent, to the fact that I don’t like a lot of the movies I talk about here. I think I may come off as overly negative. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down for a re-watch of Deep Red, one of my all-time favourites. This is a movie that, the first time I saw it, actually made me jump out of my chair in joy.
*. My jump came when Marcus (David Hemmings) registers that he saw something at an earlier point in the movie. This is referring to the “reveal,” and it is so brilliantly conceived and executed that I won’t ruin it for you here. Suffice to say that I saw what he saw. Since then I’ve introduced several other people to the movie but nobody else has got it on a first viewing, so this makes me feel even better.

*. I say the reveal is brilliantly conceived and executed and that’s something I’d echo for most of the script. Not that the story is anything special, though it is a well-tuned giallo that, surprisingly for the genre, has all the elements in place without involving us in any crazy jumps in logic. The red herrings are sensible and effectively registered, and it’s possible to be guessing at the killer’s identity up until the end, though I think it is still adequately prepared for and completely satisfying. Guillermo del Toro says that Deep Red “doesn’t make logical sense but it makes lyrical sense” in its rhyming of images, but I really think that shortchanges the plot, which I found to be pretty tight.
*. What I really like about the script though isn’t the story, or the dialogue, which is only serviceable most of the time and, given its being split between English and Italian, leads to some very odd subtitling on the DVD. A man saying “What, please?” is subtitled as “Sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” There are a lot of moments like this. The subtitles are barely an approximation of what are pretty flat lines.

*. No, what I mean when I say I love the script goes back to something I heard Robert Towne say in an interview once about how a great screenwriters sees the action. The dramatic and visual context is everything (I seem to remember Dan O’Bannon saying something similar, but I may be mistaken). Towne’s example is when, in Lawrence of Arabia, someone asks Lawrence what he loves about the desert and he looks about him and says “It’s clean.” That’s a line that takes some visual imagination.
*. Dario Argento (said to be “a director of incomparable incompetence,” in Vincent Canby’s sniffy review of Deep Red), along with his co-writer Bernardo Zapponi, have this visual instinct in spades. I think of the way they wanted to come up with murder scenes where we see injuries that the audience can relate to, so that instead of having victims stabbed or shot they have someone having their face stuck in boiling water, and another fellow having his open mouth smashed onto a mantelpiece. You can really feel that one!
*. The best example though comes when the psychic goes to open the door to her apartment and stops and screams before the hatchet comes crashing through it. Why? Because she’s a psychic! The scream comes before the jump scare because she senses what’s on the other side of the door. That’s worth a round of applause right there.

*. Another thing I love about Deep Red is its flagrant theatricality. The way the red curtains are drawn to reveal the psychic conference. The empty street that looks like it must be a set, complete with a bar copied from Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks,” complete with mannequins set up inside. This gives the proceedings the perfect blend of trash and art house. Karyn Kusama notes how Marcus’s instructions to his music students at the beginning sets the note for the rest of the film. They have to play jazz trashier. There’s just no cleaning it up.
*. Trashy, violent, and funny too. The reversal of gender roles between Marcus and Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) makes a cute motif, from their arm-wrestling to his being miniaturized by the broken seat in her car. This also serves a dramatic purpose, as despite being the male hero he is vulnerable throughout. As the police like to needle him, he doesn’t even have a real job.

*. Its influence has had a long reach. The psychic conference may have been the inspiration for the mentalist showdown at the beginning of Scanners. Billy the Puppet from the Saw franchise was apparently taken from the mannequin that makes a weird entrance here. And John Carpenter was definitely drawing, consciously or not, from Goblin’s score for his Halloween theme. Less notably, the girl being drowned in a scalding bath in Halloween II was also a steal, or homage.
*. Yes, you’ll probably want to be a fan of the genre to fully appreciate it. But this is the Citizen Kane of gialli and I think it’s a wonderful entertainment in its own right, put across with talent and verve in every department. Everyone has their own list of favourite movies, mixing undisputed classics in with idiosyncratic picks. Deep Red is a title I’d group with the latter, but it still makes my top 10.

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

*. There’s always a question when producing a new version of an old classic as to whether you want to bring it fully up-to-date or keep it in its original setting, with or without a dose of irony.
*. The Cat and the Canary started out as a play by John Willard in 1922. Since then it’s been filmed several times, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 silent version. This 1978 version is set in 1934, and the date helps give it more the air of an Agatha Christie mystery then I think the source originally had. This isn’t a surprise, since the success of recent Christie adaptations, like Death on the Nile, was apparently part of the film’s inspiration. This sort of thing was experiencing a bit of a renaissance, as evidenced not only with the Christie adaptations but such other Old Dark House mystery-comedies as Murder by Death, Clue, and House of the Long Shadows.
*. This was actually the fourth or fifth direct film adaptation of Willard’s play, but it hadn’t been done in forty years (the last version being the 1939 Bob Hope and Paulette Godard vehicle). I’m not sure what the aim was. It doesn’t try that hard for either laughs or thrills. The director, Radley Metzger, is a hard to pin down figure, known for adult-oriented/softcore erotic films while at the same time maintaining an art-house reputation. But there’s nothing sexy about this movie, despite all of the potential.
*. An interesting cast with nowhere to go. Still, it’s charming in its way, I think mainly because of the familiarity of the story. Plus it’s nice seeing some of the old faces. Edward Fox really takes the opportunity to ham it up. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s default setting was hammy, and he’s obviously enjoying himself. Olivia Hussey is funny as Honor Blackman’s wide-eyed gal pal.
*. Only a week after watching it, sitting down to write out the notes I’d made, I found I’d forgotten it almost completely. It’s that kind of movie. A bit like one of Christie’s less strenuous “entertainments,” and not really of its own time, or any other.

The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 (1979)

*. I said in my notes on Airport ’77 that it was probably the best of the Airport movies, but not the “best” if you mean the most fun. You have to grade these films on a reverse or ironic curve. Vincent Canby put this very well with regard to this last chapter in the Airport saga: “The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 is — how should I put it? — not the best of the series, but to say that it’s the worst is to convey the wrong impression. In this case, worst is best.”
*. All of the Airport movies were described as being silly, but The Concorde takes silliness to all new levels, without quite having the sense that it was all meant as a joke. When audiences responded with laughter it was actually marketed in some places as an action-comedy (“Fasten your seatbelts, the thrills are terrific . . .and so are the laughs!”), but aside from the odd funny bit I don’t think most of this was intended. It’s just a hilariously bad movie.
*. Most of the key elements are still in place. There’s a sick kid and a cute kid. There’s a plane full of stars, though they were really down to the B-list of celebs by this point. Alain Delon still looks boyish, but also somehow older than he actually was at the time of filming. Sylvia Kristel is the sexy stewardess/captain’s love interest and Jimmie Walker provides the musical interludes with his saxophone. Charo is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Robert Wagner plays, you guessed it, the heel. Sybil Danning. Eddie Albert. You get the picture. About all you really need to know is that George Kennedy’s Patroni has, by dint of hanging around for all four movies, finally advanced into the lead role. This is his franchise now!
*. No that is not Kent Brockman reading the television news! It’s Harry Shearer. Sounding like Kent Brockman.
*. It’s a minor thing –Shearer’s voice work isn’t even credited — but that news broadcast is worth highlighting as a prime example of the clichéd silliness of The Concorde. We’re familiar with the idea of a news broadcast presenting us essential information in a condensed form, sort of like the spinning headlines in the 1940s. So we’re used to characters just turning on the TV and immediately catching us up to date on everything we need to know to better understand what’s going on in the movie we’re watching. That’s the cliché.
*. Here it’s taken to an extreme. The first news story tells us that the Concorde has arrived in the U.S. This is followed by a story about a new “highly secret” anti-aircraft attack drone being tested by Harrison Industries. Hm. Could these two stories be related? But wait! “In a related story” we learn that Dr. Kevin Harrison has been named Man of the Year by some science foundation. I wonder how he’s connected to all of this! And then wrapping things up there’s a quick profile on a gymnast who is a member of the Russian Olympic Team, who just happen to be traveling on the Concorde! Indeed, the journalist who narrates the story is the secret lover of the gymnast being profiled, and they’ll be flying on the plane together. Wow. There’s a whole menu of plot elements introduced in just a few minutes.

*. The Concorde is thick with this kind of badness. Take the casual bromance between Kennedy’s Patroni and Delon. These are manly men. When they ask Kristel to bring them their coffee black she sighs “Oh, you pilots are such men!” To which Patroni cleverly replies “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey!” Groan. The sexual innuendo, if that is what we can call it, has not aged well.
*. There’s worse, as Kennedy’s wife has died so Delon sets him up with a prostitute in their Paris layover so he can get his mojo back. Meanwhile, Delon can finally bring himself to express his love for Kristel. Oh, you pilots are such men!
*. It’s typical of the dialogue in bad movies to be not just groanworthy, but to skate upon the absurd or mystifying. My favourite moment in the film is when Kennedy tells Delon that he’s going to “go back and check the passengers” after the jet suffers a massive decompression incident and is in the process of falling apart in mid air. I don’t know why the hell Patroni would feel a need to leave the cockpit at such a moment to do such a pointless task, but Delon simply mutters “Yeah.” It’s a moment of pure weirdness that I can’t really explain.
*. Or try making sense of the journalist giving play-by-play into her tape recorder as the jet is about to crash into the ocean: “We’re diving straight down! There’s so much fear! Oh dear Lord, please help us! Oh God no, it’s the last thing we knew! Oh God no, please no! We’re going into the ocean! Oh no!” There’s so much fear? It’s the last thing we knew? What is she going on about?
*. So it’s ridiculous. Not just the plot, and the dialogue, and the effects, and the business with Kennedy firing a flare pistol out the window of the jet to distract a missile, but every single thing about it. It may even rank as the worst Airport ever. Which means it’s also the best.
*. On Sneak Previews an exasperated Gene Siskel was driven to say “I don’t think as critics we go to these Airport movies any more to criticize them so much as to endure them.” But that’s not how I felt watching this again (and I have to confess here that I saw The Concorde in a theatre during its initial release). In fact, I thought it was a lot of fun. These movies are all different shades of awful — one of the most remarkable things about seeing them altogether is seeing how wide a cultural arc was travelled in the decade of the ’70s — but none of them are dull or unwatchable, even (or especially) today. For a four-film franchise that’s actually quite a mark of distinction. After this, however, there was clearly nowhere else for them to go but for belly laughs.

Airport ’77 (1977)

*. A movie with a lot of baggage. Too much baggage. I say that because the basic story here is pretty good. A trio of thieves plan on using gas to knock out the passengers and crew on a luxury airliner, thus allowing them to fly to South America with a cargo of priceless paintings by old masters. They might have gotten away with it, but entering the Bermuda Triangle (remember when that was a thing? it was in the 1970s) they clip an oil platform, sending them into the ocean. With the fuselage intact everyone survives, but they’re running out of air and the plane is springing leaks.
*. Good fun! But then there’s the baggage I mentioned. What I was referring to is the baggage that comes with this being an Airport movie. So the cast is stuffed with stars who have little to do but show their faces so the audience can say “Isn’t that Joseph Cotten?” Or “How old do you think Olivia de Havilland is?” Then there are the little Airport in-flight amenities. There’s a song, sung by a blind guy who falls in love at first whatever with Kathleen Quinlan. There’s a cute kid, and another kid whose life is in danger. There’s a couple falling out (Christopher Lee and Lee Grant), and another couple in love (plane captain Jack Lemmon and Brenda Vaccaro). And yes, good ol’ Joe Patroni also puts in an appearance. I can’t see where he does anything at all, but, you know, they don’t call these things “Patronis” for nothing.
*. I don’t think Airport ’77 needed any of this. As I began by saying, it actually has a pretty good premise and probably would have worked better without all of these distractions. But Airport had become a franchise, which meant including all of the elements that, I guess, audiences had come to expect.
*. Our star among the stars this time out is Jack Lemmon. At first blush that might seem a falling off coming from rugged action heroes like Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston, but Lemmon, who I’ve always thought underrated, is a better actor than either of those guys and he helps this movie out considerably. Just look at that glare he shoots at Lee Grant when she starts blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong. And if he needs any muscle to back him up, he’s got Vacarro to lay Grant out with a right hook.
*. How do we know it’s a luxury jet? Does the fact that it has an onboard library not impress you? Or the fact that the airline owner’s message is recorded on LaserDisc? Or the deep-pile rug even on the stairways? Well how about this then: the main lounge has table-top video games installed so you can play Atari’s Pong at 35,000 feet! Now that’s luxury, ’77 style!
*. Watching Airport ’77 I was struck by how it may be the best movie of the bunch, but it’s not as much fun as the first two. Parts of it are dated, and other parts are just plain bad, but it’s not dated or bad enough to be wholly enjoyable as camp. It is, however, a decent enough disaster thriller for its day, and passes the time better than most.

Airport 1975 (1974)

*. In my notes on Airport I mentioned how it was the originator of the spate of all-star disaster epics that dominated the box office in the 1970s (and which saw Earthquake, also starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy, released the same year as this picture), but that the disaster in that movie was incidental to the sort of show it was. In fact, Van Heflin looking to blow up the plane to collect an insurance policy wasn’t even a bad guy. At the time terrorists weren’t as readily available as all-purpose plot devices for screenwriters.
*. Well, Airport 1975 puts the disaster back in disaster movie. Despite all the trappings of a prestige picture, resulting in its ten Oscar nominations, I don’t think anyone thought Airport was a great movie. But with Airport 1975 we have a bona fide mega-turkey. From epic to epically bad can be one small step. And with just the slightest of tweaks the next small step would result in Airplane!
*. “Inspired by the Film ‘Airport’ Based on the Novel by Arthur Hailey.” What an odd credit. At least it seems odd to me. Is it to be read sequentially, so that the film Airport was based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, and then this film based on that film? I think so, as this movie has nothing to do with the novel. Nor would either of the next two movies, which would have the same credit. But what do any of these sequels have to do with Hailey’s novel, aside from being about planes in danger? You might as well say Passenger 57, Die Hard 2, Executive Decision, and Snakes on a Plane were based on or inspired by Airport. I guess the (only recurring) character of Patroni is Hailey’s, but they didn’t need to keep him for any of the sequels.
*. So Airport 1975 is bad. Pauline Kael went to town on it, calling it, among other things, “cut-rate swill” and “processed schlock”: “produced on a TV-movie budget by mercenary businessmen” (is there any other kind?). Actually it was originally conceived of as a TV-movie, and had a correspondingly low budget, though I don’t hold that against it. I actually thought the air-to-air transfer scene was pretty good for what you might expect in the mid-70s. But if you do come to it with an eye for small-screen talent to fill in the gaps between the stars you’ll see plenty of familiar faces: Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Norman Fell, Erik Estrada. This does add to the TV-movie flavour.
*. As for Chuck Heston, I already mentioned how low he seemed to have fallen in The Omega Man (1971). This is no worse. And he was only 17 years older than Karen Black, which was less of an age gap than for the couples in Airport. Aristotle, who thought the ideal marriageable age was 37 for men and 18 for women, would have split the difference.
*. As I said in my notes on Children of the Corn: The Gathering: “Oh, Karen Black. To have gone from Five Easy Pieces and Nashville to this (and House of 1000 Corpses still to come).” What an odd career. I mean, this turkey actually came out a year before Nashville. Still, when you look at her filmography she’s always kept working. I salute her again.
*. Critics took a lot of shots at Black’s character. I don’t think she’s totally helpless, and probably handles herself as well as, or better than, I would have in such a situation. I only laughed when she tells the control tower “A piece of wreckage fell onto the radio panel,” temporarily disabling it. It didn’t just fall. She dropped it. And I don’t know why she was messing around with it in the first place.
*. But so bad it’s good? Kael again: “One can have a fairly good time laughing at it, but it doesn’t sit too well as a joke, because the people on the screen are being humiliated.” I think she might have been feeling some sympathy for Gloria Swanson, whose last film this was to be. I don’t know. Swanson looks like she was enjoying herself, and apparently wrote her own lines. There are worse ways to go (if not worse movies to go in). I felt sorrier for Jimmy Stewart in Airport ’77, and he wasn’t even in the plane that ends up underwater.
*. So to ask again: so bad it’s good? It’s listed not just among The Fifty Worst Films of All Time but also in The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made by Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson. I can go along with this. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Helen Reddy singing to Linda Blair. Truly, there is still much to be savored here for the connoisseur of awfulness, even a half-century later. And for that I believe some credit is due.

Airport (1970)

*. With the hindsight of half a century, is it OK to enjoy Airport now?
*. I don’t mean “Can we laugh at it?” People thought it was ridiculous and laughed at it in 1970. It didn’t need Airplane! ten years (and three sequels) later to make fun of it.
*. Nor do I mean that only now can we see it as badly dated. This was, again, something noticed by everyone at the time. Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944.” Pauline Kael dismissed it as “bland entertainment of the old school: every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction — clichés commenting on clichés.” Variety‘s review saw it as “a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking.” Charles Champlin described it as “breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent.” You get the point. We’re not more sophisticated today than we were then.
*. But the reviewers who saw Airport as a throwback were on to something. Today I think it’s most often seen as the beginning of the spate of disaster movies that were so popular throughout the 1970s. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno being two of its more famous offspring. But really it’s a movie that I think does look back.

*. It has the feel of earlier times for many reasons. It was Van Heflin’s last film. It was the final score by Alfred Newman. There were apparently 23 Oscars among the cast and crew, which gives the proceedings a kind of Hall of Fame feel (Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, coming nearly forty years after her first). There isn’t a single interesting style note, unless you’re impressed by the use of a split screen every damn time there’s a telephone call. The cast is all white, and the leading men all of a certain vintage, the names of their characters betokening varieties of ethnic masculinity: Mel Bakersfeld, Vernon Demerest, and Patroni (no first name required, he’s the troubleshooter and “They don’t call them emergencies anymore. They call them Patronis.”). Their love interests, meanwhile, are 25 years younger. As was customary in this golden age.
*. If you really want whiplash though, compare Jean Seberg as she’s done up here in the height of Edith Head’s “Airport style” to what she looked like in Breathless ten years earlier. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. I’ll wait.
*. What it’s all a throwback to, it seems to me, is the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk popularized in the 1950s (think Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind). Airport is nominally about multiple crises at a busy Chicago airport but it’s really a soap opera. Based on a bestseller by Arthur Hailey that might have established the genre of airport novel, it gives us a bunch of stock characters in an overripe drama where the setting takes a backseat to all the usual shenanigans. Shenanigans that come at us with dialogue like that delivered by Captain Demerest the Horny Pilot (played by Dean Martin) to the sexy stewardess (Jacqueline Bissett): “You get me up to full throttle then throw me into reverse. You could damage my engine that way!”

*. Alas, Captain Demerest has put a bun in her oven, which leads to the Abortion Talk:

Why didn’t you tell me this before?
I tried. But we were in a hurry and . . .
You’re sure?
Do you mean am I sure I’m pregnant, or am I sure you’re the father?
Come on, Gwen. I didn’t . . .
The answer to both questions is yes.
You know I wasn’t asking.
You have a perfect right to. I want you to know something, Vern. That there hasn’t been anyone else but you. You see, there couldn’t be. I happen to love you. I’m afraid I was careless. I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight. So instead of being plump, I’m pregnant. Stop twisting your wedding ring. I know you’ve got a wife. I know you can’t marry me. I knew it in the beginning. I won’t make things difficult for you.

*. Just as fluffy as the Abortion Talk is the Divorce Talk. This takes place between airport manager Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his wife:

We don’t have a home anymore. We have a waiting room, a place where I can walk the floor, wondering whether you’re going to leave this damn airport long enough to drop by for a few minutes.
Why did you have to pick tonight to come out here and fight with me . . .
I came here to tell you that Roberta [their daughter] left home.
What do you mean left home? When?
I called from the banquet to say goodnight, and I spoke to Libby. Roberta, she said, told her that she couldn’t stand our fighting anymore. That she couldn’t stand the “atmosphere of hate.” And that’s a direct quote.
Where is she? Did Libby say?
She’s at Sally Bolton’s house. She’s going to spend the night there. I spoke to her.
Cindy, we can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to call a truce, even if it’s a pretense. We’ve got to start being civil to each other.
And add hypocrisy to the problem? They’d see through that in a minute. That’s not the answer.
Well we’ve got to do something.
You’re right, and the only answer is a divorce.
You think that will make them feel more secure? A broken home?
It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

*. I’ve quoted all this at length because I think it gets at the real charm of Airport. As I say, this is what the movie is really all about. And I think it’s the kind of thing Roger Ebert might have been responding to when he began his review by saying “On some dumb fundamental level, Airport kept me interested for a couple of hours. I can’t quite remember why.” Well, this is why. It’s a soap formula and on the most basic, perhaps even subconscious level that stuff works.
*. So if we can all enjoy Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind today not just as camp but as representing a certain kind of story told a certain way then I think we can do the same for Airport. I can’t write it off, as Lancaster did, as “the worst piece of junk ever made.” In fact I was surprised at how much I liked it. I especially got a kick out of how the stupid passengers screw up the bomb scenario not once but twice. They all deserved to die.
*. Meanwhile, with the template that had been established, could they do it all again? Given the box office they were certainly going to try!