Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Concorde... Airport '79

Airport had kicked off the disaster movie movie boom in 1970 and had been a huge hit for Universal. In fact it was successful enough to spawn no less than three sequels. The last of these was The Concorde... Airport '79, generally considered to be the weakest of the four. That’s a fairly accurate assessment but the movie can still offer a great deal of fun if you’re in the right mood.

Setting this movie on board Concorde rather than on a boring old 747 seemed likely to add a bit more excitement, and in some ways this turns out to be the case.

The movie begins with the delivery of the first Concorde to Federation World Airlines. Concorde’s arrival in the US almost ends in disaster when it narrowly misses a collision with a hot air ballon manned by militant greenies. This is one of many subplots in this movie that end up going nowhere at all.

The Concorde’s first scheduled passenger service for Federation World Airlines is to be a flight to Moscow via Paris. One of the passengers will be newscaster Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely). Her boyfriend is billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner). Maggie has just discovered that Harrison has been illegally selling arms to various rogue states and she’s told him that she’s going to expose the scandal. Harrison decides that his best option is to take out a contract on Maggie. Now you might think this would be fairly straightforward. Surely any competent hitman could arrange a little accident for her, possibly have her hit by a car. But no, that’s not good enough for Harrison. He decides that the easiest way to have her killed would be by destroying the Concorde. The fact that destroying the Concorde would undoubtedly set off an incredibly exhaustive investigation, the sort of exhaustive investigation he desperately wants to avoid at this point in time, apparently does not occur to him.

Trying to shoot down the Concorde is crazy enough but Harrison compounds his lunacy to deciding that this will be accomplished by an experimental missile system built by his own company, thus ensuring that the exhaustive investigation will be directly focussed on his own company.

Concorde takes off for Paris, piloted by the airline’s chief pilot Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) and French pilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon). The Concorde will end up facing not just one deadly threat but two - as a backup plan Harrison has an F-4 Phantom armed with air-to-air missiles in case his new missile system fails to do the trick.

Now the Concorde was, even by today’s standards, an awesome technological achievement. It was a remarkable aircraft. But it was a passenger jet, albeit one designed to fly at twice the speed of sound. It was not an air superiority fighter optimised for dogfighting. It was hardly likely to be able to out-manoeuvre a purpose-built fighter aircraft. But in this movie that’s exactly what Concorde can do!

But Harrison is determined, and he has more schemes up his sleeve to doom the Concorde!

There are of course a couple of romantic subplots, most notably between a Russian Olympic gymnast and an American TV reporter, and between Captain Metrand and stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel). Joe Patroni will also have a romantic interlude in Paris, although he doesn’t get quite what he thinks he’s getting.

Now as you’ve probably gathered the plot is pretty silly. Even just the outline of the plot is silly, but when we get to the details it becomes very much sillier. That’s not really a problem however - generally speaking the sillier the disaster movie the more fun it is. This movie does however have a couple of major problems.

The first problem is with the special effects. They’re truly awful. I don’t mind special effects that are not entirely convincing - once I get into a movie I can allow my willing suspension of disbelief to gloss over slightly iffy special effects. In this movie however the effects are just too crude, too obviously fake and too obviously cheap. They jar you out of the movie. In fact virtually all the action scenes fall a little flat and are sometimes badly paced (the final climactic scenes seem much too rushed).

The second problem is with the cast. You expect a disaster movie to have at least a couple of big names, plus the usual array of second-stringers and superannuated former stars. This movie really doesn’t have much in the way of star power. Robert Wagner was at best a moderately big star, Alain Delon was a huge star in Europe but much less so in English-speaking markets, and while Sylvia Kristel was possibly the most famous porn star in the world (having featured in the most successful soft-core porn movie of all time, Emmanuelle) she was not exactly a mainstream star.

Even worse are the wide divergences between the performances. Robert Wagner and Susan Blakely seem to think they’re making a serious thriller. George Kennedy thinks it’s broad comedy. Alain Delon is renowned as a minimalist kind of actor and is clearly uncomfortable trying to play an extroverted heroic role.

Disaster movies require a particular kind of acting. It has to be over-the-top and larger-than-life but it has to stop short of outright self-parody. In Airport 1975 Charlton Heston and Karen Black (two of the best scenery-chewers in the business) showed how it should be done. Their performances were wildly extravagant but they still managed to convey the impression that their characters believed in the reality of the situations they faced - they were not overtly comic or tongue-in-cheek performances. Unfortunately George Kennedy not only crosses the line into self-parody but does so in a somewhat embarrassing way, as do some of the supporting players (notably Martha Raye who must have been very very desperate for money to take this role).

And what exactly were the producers thinking of when they cast Sylvia Kristel? It’s not that her performance is any worse than anyone else’s, but let’s face it what Sylvia Kristel was known for was her ability to portray uninhibited sexuality (which she did superbly). I’m not suggesting that she should have been cavorting about naked but surely it would have been sensible to make her character at least a little bit sexy? There are only two sexy scenes in the movie and she’s not in either. With all due respect to Andrea Marcovicci one can’t help thinking that Sylvia Kristel could have made the hot-run romp scene really sizzle.

There’s also one truly cringe-inducing moment. Joe Patroni has confided to Metrand that he lost his wife a year earlier and he’s still really broken up about it. So Metrand sets him up with an expensive French hooker (played rather improbably by Bibi Andersson), but he doesn’t tell Patroni she’s a hooker. He lets Patroni think this woman has fallen in love with him and that maybe he has found True Love again, then the next morning tells him the woman was a prostitute. It’s a pretty cruel thing to do but Patroni think it’s a great joke. It comes cross as rather creepy.

Having made these criticisms it has to be admitted that The Concorde... Airport '79 still has enough loopiness and sheer outrageousness to satisfy hard-core disaster movie fans. The plot, despite its extreme implausibility, has some inspired lunacy to it that makes one wish the producers had tried just a little harder with this movie.

The Region 4 boasts an adequate transfer without extras.

The Concorde... Airport '79 cannot be taken seriously even for a second but it’s rather enjoyable silliness. Recommended for fans of the genre, although certainly not as good as Airport 1975 or Airport ’77.

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