Identifying with danger

A glimpse into entertainment’s future included

Published: May 24 2020, 01:01:am

Friday, April 7, 1977

AIRPORT ’77. Written by Michael Scheff and David Spector. Music by John Cacavus. Directed by Jerry Jameson. Running time: 114 minutes. Mature entertainment.
REMEMBER THAT SILLY-SERIOUS game we all played as children? ''If you hadda die,” someone would say, ''would you rather die by fire or by drowning?”
    As a kid, I always chose fire. Drowning had to be the worst possible way to go. To this day, large bodies of water terrify me.
    Airport '77 is a movie designed to provide nearly two hours of cold sweat for us hydrophobes. Like 1972’s The Poseidon  Adventure, it is the story of a  marine disaster, one that features a planeload of people trapped beneath the sea and watching the water rise.
    The plane is a palatially-appointed 747 owned by ailing philanthropist Philip Stevens (James Stewart). Under the command of its pilot, Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), it is transporting the multimillionaire's art collection and a platoon of his friends to Florida, where all will participate in the dedication of a new art museum.
    Following a different flight plan is Gallagher's co-pilot, Chambers (Robert Foxworth). Together with two confederates, he intends to hijack the jumbo jet, drop beneath ground control radar and skim over the Bermuda Triangle to a deserted airfield in the Caribbean.
    Chambers is counting on the Triangle’s bizarre reputation to cover the real reason for the plane's disappearance just long enough for them to make their getaway. Instead, the low-flying airliner clips an offshore oil rig, and ends up on the ocean bottom.
    Like the two previous Airport pictures, Airport ’77 is a formula thriller. In all of them, a group of disparate personalities are brought together, sealed into an iron bird and flown into danger.
    Since everyone knows the basic plot line,  the filmmaker faces a real challenge when he tries to make it work all over again. Jack Smight failed utterly with the execrable Airport 1975
    Credit Jerry Jameson with making his film a success. A veteran TV action director,  Jameson manages to turn Airport ’77 into one frightening flight.
    He does so by concentrating on processes — the  skyjacking, crash-sinking, escape and rescue attempts — rather than personalities. Making the big Boeing a private plane cuts his passenger list to the bare minimum, and Jameson wastes little  time putting the lot of them in peril for their lives.
    Working from the theory that audiences identify with credible danger rather than credible characters, the producers have indulged themselves with some surprisingly effective off-type casting.
    Who would have expected to see the usually anxious Lemmon as the stalwart flight captain, the usually villainous Christopher Lee as an heroic humanitarian, or the usually seedy Darren McGavin as a sophisticated aircraft designer?    
    So challenged, the stars work harder than they normally do on such a bread-and-butter project. Together, their efforts make Airport ’77 a suspense programmer with class.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1977. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In 1975, during a working visit to Universal Studios, I mentioned to one of the press relations officers that I hoped someday to buy a 16mm print of director Norman Jewison’s landmark musical Jesus Christ Superstar so that I could see it at home. "You may want to hold off on that," he said. "We have this new thing that we're working on . . ." Two years later, in the movie Airport ’77, I watched a flight attendant load an LP-sized disc into a machine in the passenger cabin of Philip Stevens’s private 747, and play a message from the multimillionaire to his guests. In 1978, Universal's parent company MCA went public with DiscoVision, a 12-inch silver platter that utilized the first of the LaserDisc technologies. As it turned out, DiscoVision was among the casualties in the home-video format wars, and for a time VHS videocassettes ruled. Then, in the mid-1990s, the laser technology returned with a vengeance. Reduced in size and cost, the DVD became the new standard.
    Though I didn’t mention it in the above review, the versatile Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is involved in the action yet again. Here he’s identified as an aeronautics expert working as a technical advisor to the U.S. Navy’s rescue mission. In 1979, George Kennedy made his final appearance in the Patroni role. This time the multi-talented character is given the job of piloting the first American supersonic passenger jet. Despite a cast of international stars, director David Lowell Rich’s The Concorde . . . Airport ’79  bombed at the box office, effectively putting an end to the series.

Boarding pass: The three features in the Airport franchise now contained in the Reeling Back archive are 1970’s Airport, directed by George Seaton, Airport 1975 (1974; Jack Smight) and Airport ’77 (1977; Jerry Jameson).