Tuesday, 10 June 2014

DISASTER - Doomed in the Seventies

AIRPORT (1970)
A demolition expert takes out life insurance and decides to blow up an airliner piloted by Captain Harris (Barry Nelson) over the Atlantic, the idea being his wife collects the payout. Captain Vernon Demerest – Dean Martin – tries to talk him out of it, but the bomb explodes at the back of the plane, wiping out the bomber and the lavatory. Inconvenient. The Chief Stewardess is injured in the blast - Jackie Bisset is also carrying Dean's baby. All the airports are snowed in, so it's up to plucky airport manager Burt Lancaster to get things moving, assisted by gritty chief mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) so the plane can land safely...

Although there have been disaster movies before, the golden age (Was there a Silver?) for the genre is unarguably the 1970s. The social concerns and tensions of the time proved to be a treasure trove for the ailing big studios. Much as the decade threw out some remarkable Conspiracy thrillers, the disaster flicks with their stellar casts and big budget effects and scale were supreme. Airport really started something... not least three sequels titled, with imagination foremost Airport 1975, Airport '77 and finally, The Concorde, Airport '79.

The SS Poseidon is an elderly liner on her last passenger voyage. On New Years Eve a Tsunami slams into the ship, turning her turtle. Trapped in the upturned hull the survivors must find a way to escape the capsized ship. Based on a real life rogue wave (Waves that rise, unpredicted and unforseen from the oceans) that nearly sank the Queen Mary, the movie revolves around the different passengers and their efforts to survive. Gene Hackman plays Rev. Frank Scott, who leads the passengers, Ernest Borgnine is a New York cop, Red Buttons is a Haberdasher, Roddy McDowall is a waiter, Shelley Winters is Belle – handily, a former champion swimmer and Leslie Nielsen is the Captain of the doomed liner.

ABOVE: Storyboard to Action

By now, one thing should be clear; the formula for the '70s Disaster movie involves a BIG cast – the stars of the day combined with ageing stars from the pantheon of Hollywood. Whatever a pantheon is...


With Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, Geneviรจve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Victoria Principal, Walter Matthau, Barry Sullivan and George Kennedy, this one follows the formula to a 't'.
With a complex series of sub-plots revolving around the characters and their lives, L.A. Is in danger. After an initial tremor at a dam, another kills two seismologists and it's clear something big is on the horizon. When the Big One hits, much of the city is destroyed and groups are trapped in high-rise buildings, forced to climb down by fire hose as the stairwells have partially collapsed. 

There's some real depth to this one, mainly due to the great FX and a script from Mario Puzo (The Godfather). Due to the massive scale of the production, a record 141 stunt performers were called in, with Matte painting King Albert Whitlock painting over FORTY mattes to augment the visual FX. Some of his paintings are so good I challenge you to list more than half of them. One gimmick that had a sadly limited lifespan was Sensurround – massive subwoofers were installed in participating cinemas to blast the audiences' senses. Nosebleeds were not uncommon and in the test screening the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater suffered cracks to the plaster!.

Despite the amazing cast, two actors were unavailable for the film; Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Why? - because they were already signed up for the biggest of them all...

The film so big no single studio dared attempt it, The Towering Inferno was the first joint studio production. Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox came together to produce 1974's biggest grossing film and a triple Oscar winner. In addition to messrs McQueen and Newman came William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Roberts Vaughn and Wagner, plus Fred Astaire and a certain O.J. Simpson. 
 ABOVE: A smoking-hot campaign included bumper stickers and badges.
The Glass Tower in San Francisco is, at 138 stories, the tallest building in the World. Architect Doug Roberts (Newman) clashes with McQueen's Fire Chief O'Hallorhan over safety concerns after a small fire on opening night. Roger Simmons (Chamberlain) is the crooked engineer responsible for cutting corners on the project whilst owner James Duncan – William Holden refuses to order an evacuation. Trapped on the Promenade Room, small parties leave by express elevator, until the fire spreads and, ignoring warnings a last group try to go down... and are burned alive. A rooftop evacuation goes horribly wrong with a chopper crash and the baddie gets what's coming; Simmons forces his way onto a breeches buoy – one of those cages used to transfer sailors between ships – and is killed. 

There's a great scene with a scenic elevator, after which a desperate plan is hatched – to blow up the million-gallon water tanks on the top of the building...

If you only bother with one Seventies Disaster flick, this is the one; it's got it all. Heroics, love-interest, cowardly bad-guy, visual effects and some genuinely gripping action. Look out for Fred Astaire's conman, as great an actor as he was a dancer. One of the films Oscars went to the song 'We May Never Love Like This Again' sung by the same Maureen McGovern that featured in The Poseidon Adventure.

Another Sensurround outing, this one revolves around a maniac (Timothy Bottoms) with no name, who places bombs on Theme Park Rollercoasters around America. George Segal is Harry Calder, a Ride Inspector who goes after the bomber. A young Helen Hunt plays his daughter. Richard Widmark is FBI Agent Hoyt, leading the manhunt, with Henry Fonda as Calder's Boss. Things go wrong with the attempt to pay off the bomber when it is revealed marked bills were used by the Feds and things come to a dramatic climax on the new Revolution coaster at Magic Coaster. Released at the same time as Star Wars, this one was doomed to relative obscurity, but its fun with some good effects and genuine suspense. Keep a lookout for Steve Guttenberg in his first role as the park messenger. 

AIRPLANE! (1980)
The hallmark of success is a good parody and we can't ignore the best of them all; Airplane! is
a visual riot of gags, slapstick and goofy oddball humour that fondly spoofs the Airport movies. With several genre stalwarts including Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy and Maureen McGovern (A singing nun!) the whole thing is far too silly for review. If you are that one person that hasn't seen it – do your best to not be that one person. Be another person, one that has seen... anyway...
The film that gave us the funny Leslie Nielsen – go straight to the store of your choice and get the Police Squad! Series. Why are you still reading this?, dammit... an order, is an order.
ABOVE: The auto-pilot had fun filming (Left) and the famous 'Surely, you can't be serious?' - 'I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.'
You want more, eh?; check out these links for some Disaster Movie Gold; Hollywood's idea of 'miniature';
The incredible artwork of Albert Whitlock;
How's this for cool?; the studio attraction I'd most like to see resurrected;

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