In The Towering Inferno, Richard Chamberlain‘s sinister son-in-law character died for his sins. He was selfish and cowardly, and so he had to fall 138 stories to his death, screaming all the way down. But disaster films are also expected to serve some cruel sadism, and so a couple of innocents (played by Jennifer Jones and Susan Flannery) also slammed into the pavement. Satisfaction all around.
One of the reasons I disliked Jack Smight‘s Airport ’75 is that none of the passengers (some of whom were played by Gloria Swanson, Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Sid Ceasar, Myrna Loy, Jerry Stiller, Normal Fell, Nancy Olson and Martha Scott) were killed. They just sat in their seats and grimaced and occasionally screamed.
Airport ’75 is basically about Dana Andrews’ small private plane crashing into the windshield of a commercial 747. Three professional guys die as a result — Andrews, co-pilot Roy Thinnes and attempted replacement pilot Ed Nelson. The latter, tethered to a cord, is lowered from a rescue plane in front of the wounded jet. Unfortunately his harness becomes caught in the jagged material surrounding the hole in the cockpit, and Nelson flies out. I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want Nelson to fall 20,000 feet to his death — I wanted Swanson, Reddy, Loy or Stiller to suffer that fate.
In his 1.19.74 N.Y. Times review, Vincent Canby said that Airport ’75 suffers from “a total lack of awareness of how comic it is when it’s attempting to be most serious.”
If I’d been in charge of the script and direction, I would have included MCU footage of the terrified Nelson as he falls to his doom above the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains. (Imagine Martin Balsam‘s close-up as he’s falling backwards down the stairs in Psycho — something in that realm.) Then I would have cut to a young couple enjoying some cross-country skiing near a large frozen lake. They would look up as they hear a strange hissing sound. Behind them we see a blurry, human-shaped missile slam into the ice and disappear. The couple turns. They take off their skis and walk out to the area of impact. They come upon a perfect body-shape hole (arms, legs, head) in the ice.
Too sadistic? Maybe, but be honest — this is the kind of Colisseum-style spectacle that ’70s disaster movies were selling, certainly by implication. I realize that the film was financially successful (cost $3 million, made $50 million worldwide) but it wasn’t bloodthirsty enough.