Tonight we’re taking on another real doozy of a film from the twilight of the golden era of filmmaking. While I had little hopes for this one going in, I sure did come out with a grin on my face.
A bit of backstory first. In attempting to complete my collection of Italian cult film directors whose careers were almost (but not quite) completely documented on domestic DVD, one of the last remaining holy grails was Ruggero Deodato’s Concorde Affaire ’79.
Filled with Euro-cult favorites like Mimsy Farmer (Autopsy, Perfume of the Lady in Black, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Fulci’s Black Cat), James Franciscus (Killer Fish, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Chuck Norris’ Good Guys Wear Black), Joseph Cotten (Baron Blood, The Hellbenders, Latitude Zero), Edmund Purdom (Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, Absurd, Ator, Invaders of the Lost Gold, 2019: After the Fall of New York), ubiquitous character actor Ventatino Ventanini (City of the Living Dead, Cannibal Ferox, Beast in Space, Exterminators of the Year 3000), stuntman/actor Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (Zombi 3 and literally hundreds of bit parts, often uncredited, throughout Italian cult film), this little gem eluded me for years, only available domestically in a subpar pan and scan VHS rip print from the abominable scam artists at Substance (a company with a reputation well deserved – at least other unwatchable quality bootleggers have the decency to price their products accordingly!).
Finally, I found a English friendly letterboxed print overseas, and it did not disappoint, with its little tale of corporate espionage. There’s very little actual flying and few of the standard disaster film tropes to be found herein – the film is more akin to a cross between a poliziotteschi and Joe D’Amato’s engaging and hallucinatory travelogue Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals, which may be the reason it holds something of a bad reputation among cult film fans.
Nonetheless, in my quest to find a decent print of this film, I was misled into confusing the Deodato film (Concorde Affaire ’79) with the one we’re discussing this evening, the similarly titled Concorde: Airport ’79, particularly as both films star a veritable host of Euro and cult film stars. And like the aforementioned Deodato picture, this one ill deserves the maltreatment it routinely recieves on the part of snotty bourgeoise reviewers who would prefer a “technically perfect” slab of generic blah from hacks like Steven (spit when you say the name) Spielberg or the incessantly self-revisionist George (the mention of whom is akin to cursing) Lucas to something that might actually entertain an audience.
And so we come to the star of our show. Available on a relatively reasonably priced box set containing all four Airport films, I put this acquisition aside in disgust and annoyance when I realized my mistaken misidentification of the picture in question, and buried it deep in my pile of “films to be watched”. Fast forward at least a year or two. I’ve finally seen and wholeheartedly enjoyed the Deodato film, which has put a warmer light on potentially sitting down to what may wind up being yet another Irwin Allen style disaster picture snoozefest.
Having grown up in an era when such films were, if not lionized, then certainly considered quite mainstream and populist entertainment, enjoyed by most and a topic of discussion at parties and the dinner table, I cultivated a profound distaste for such banal “entertainments” as Earthquake, the Poseidon Adventure, and their numerous clones. The only one I recall getting any measure of amusement out of is one that is sadly at last call unavailable or out of print on DVD: 1980’s Meteor, which featured Sean Connery and if memory serves, a meteor slowly rolling down the subway! Naturally, it was voted “worst film of all time”, just showing where the average movie viewer’s sensibilities lie, and their apparent lack of humor…
But thankfully, I was proved wrong in this case. Concorde: Airport 79 turned out to be even more fun than the Deodato film, and in fact, one of the better Code Red style “party films” I’ve seen recently. Bill Norton Olsen would have been proud to release this slab of steaming gruyere on his much-missed label. And yes, I’m fully aware he’s still floundering about with the occasional direct sales release, but for all intents and purposes, like many of the other boutique labels still struggling along in the current milieu, its glory days appear to be unfortunately behind it. Here’s hoping things turn around for all these guys, and that we don’t all lose out to the majors’ inexorable move away from private ownership towards a neverending monthly billing cycle streaming rental milieu.
Like the similiarly titled Deodato film of the same year, Concorde: Airport ’79 is positively overflowing with familiar and beloved Euro and cult stars – noted bad boy and Nico and Bardot ex Alain Delon, “Emmanuelle” Sylvia Kristel, Sybil Danning (back in her German softcore days, when she was still just a very attractive woman, before she turned into the US based cartoon of her 80’s and 90’s career), a quick cameo from “R Bolla” (Robert Kernan, porn star and star of numerous Italian cannibal and horror films), standby George Kennedy (Death Ship, Nico Mastorakis’ Nightmare at Noon), even David Warner of The Omen and Nightwing fame all take their bows herein.
In addition, we get a few really bizarre choices from the washed up actors home: unlikely alleged Church of Satan member Eddie Albert, song & dance gal/denture cream huckster Martha Raye, hoochie koochie girl and walking cartoon Charo, goofy Cheetos pitchman and Mario lookalike Avery Schrieber (who gets to show off his sign language skills in what for him is an all time career pinnacle of cumulative screentime) and JJ “Dy-no-mite!” Walker as a guy who sleeps with his saxophone and smokes a lot of dope, plus impeccably coiffed gameshow host and lounge singer John Davidson and a man I find to be rather boring as a rule, Hart to Hart’s Robert Wagner as the baddie.
The plot is both similar to Deodato’s picture and quite different: in both cases, corporate entities are prepared to sacrifice innocent lives to wreck the Concorde in-flight. But where Deodato’s is more industrial espionage in focus (removal of competition and the halting of the sort of progress that would be inclined to render their rival business redundant) and thus more apropos to today’s world of multinational corporate rivalries and hostile takeovers where human worth is not even considered a factor when measured against corporate profit, Airport ’79 still carries a bit of a bite.
Because while the barometer has shifted from the bigger picture Deodato’s film showcases to a more acute and personal “silence the witness who knows too much” milieu, and while nobody seems to look twice at our own government doing the same thing nowadays, the big crime Wagner is trying to cover up? Get this. Selling arms to hostile foreign powers and would be dictatorships. Gasp! Like our leaders have never done THAT…
One actress I pointedly neglected to mention is no-talent bubblehead Susan Blakely, who takes a lead role as Wagner’s girlfriend cum reporter. While ostensibly the focus of the film, as the “hard hitting investigative reporter” who comes into possession of the incriminating documents that would ruin Wagner if made public, and thus the catalyst for setting the entire film in motion, Blakely is just plain bad. Painful to watch in any sense other than a purely aesthetic one (she’s not wholly unattractive), her scenes generally serve to slow things down and distance the viewer (or at least this viewer) from the proceedings until the scene shifts and she does the one bit of acting she’s best suited to: fading into the background once again, like a somewhat fetching piece of furniture that would fall apart if ever utilized.
The real star of the show, in terms of both screentime and blustery likeability, is boozy George Kennedy as the unlikely pilot of the plane. While he’s always an enjoyable and welcome presence in his pictures, Kennedy gets to drop a relentless battery of hilariously off color jokes early in the flight cabin – the sort of boys’ club humor that would probably get him arrested in the more absurdly uptight world of the “politically correct” that still stains public discourse and clogs our national courts with an unending stream of frivolous nonsense lawsuits. Needless to say, his lines are both eye wideningly funny and most welcome.
John Davidson, a year before That’s Incredible and 6 years before Hollywood Squares, but still with that impeccably feathered coiffure, gets an amusing scene in a hot tub with his homely (supposedly Russian, but obviously not) olympic team girlfriend (one Andrea Marcovicci), which proves that even being submerged underwater for minutes at a time will not loosen a single strand of that helmet of hair. Despite scoring with his lady of choice, he quickly finds his amorous overtures in flight stymied by her scary old coach. Until the end, that is. “If we survive this flight, I’m marrying you”, Marcovicci intones, to which Davidson responds by ordaining himself and holding an impromptu “wedding ceremony”, to which the coach applauds. Awww, aren’t the crazies cute when they let them out of the bughouse?
Delon, a notorious ladies man who was noted for his flirtations with underworld ties, seems to have little purpose other than eye candy for the ladies, with his biggest scene relating to his balling Kristel pre-flight (which makes her the butt of one of George Kennedy’s jokes a few minutes later, when he recognizes her perfume from Delon’s hotel room). So essentially, he’s a player, a procurer (hang in there, we’ll get to that), and a pilot, all rolled into one…and he still doesn’t get all that many lines. Go figure.
Martha Raye takes a hilarious turn as the old lady who has to run to the toilet every time she gets nervous – which means she’s seldom shown outside entering, leaving, or desperately knocking on the door of the crapper. This recurrently literal dose of bathroom humor takes up an inordinate amount of screentime throughout the course of the proceedings.
In one scene, the plane repressurizes, and the toilet explodes all over her, resulting in yet another great joke when she re-enters the cabin. Her last bow onscreen shows her in seat for a change, with a helpful stewardess inquiring whether she needs the bathroom (!). “Not any more, honey!” says Martha, as she pitches back another swill from a bottle of booze.
Miles Davis ex Cicely Tyson is also present, but spends pretty much her entire flight in an annoying state of abject paranoia. Apparently she’s transporting a heart for her son’s transplant, though this element appears to have been dropped or forgotten about halfway through, and she all but disappears for the remainder of the film. No loss.
Things really kick into high gear as we approach the halfway mark, when Wagner finally sends his hijacked military assault drone after the Concorde. Despite buzzing the plane numerous times, several airshow style allez-oops and like maneouvers manage to keep our heroes safe and sound until the US Air Force comes to the rescue and takes the thing down.
But wait, it’s not over yet – Wagner calls a crony in Russia, who sends up two jets to fire missiles at the plane! Fancy flying (this time, by Delon) manages to dodge the first, then the plane is depressurized so Kennedy can (check this out) fire a flare gun from the cockpit (while traveling at the speed of sound, mind you) to distract the second of these presumed heatseekers (though if such were the case, how did they manage to dodge the first one? Wouldn’t it have reversed course for them, rather than becoming the first of many aeronautic machineries to dive straight into the ocean?).
But then, you got it, the gun jams. Playing dropsy with the gun, Kennedy sets a flare off in the cabin (!), which Warner promptly puts out with a handy fire extinguisher. Two more missiles are coming, so they cut the engines, as there’s apparently no residual heat to attract them a second after same (ahem), and once again, they go into the ocean.
The plane retains its dive, only turning on engines and pulling out last minute, which is apparently too soon for the jet fighters to accomodate, so they crash into the ocean and explode. Yes, you heard it right – the Concorde has out maneouvered two military aircraft. The plane lands harmlessly in Paris, and we are finally at the halfway mark.
We’re treated to a queasy taste of old folks romance when George Kennedy gets fixed up by copilot Delon with a gracefully aging Frenchwoman (Bibi Anderssen of Bergman’s dour The Seventh Seal). For about 10 or 15 minutes of screentime, they have one of those squalid “meaningful” conversations about family, love and loss we’ve come to expect from oldster-oriented prime time TV, and nauseatingly fall into the sack, where we get to see George in all his graying hirstuteness and this unfortunate femme making out with him (while looking off at the camera several times throughout, as if to say “do I REALLY get paid enough to do this?”).
But just when you think we’ve taken some sordid detour into Murder She Wrote or Matlock territory, a next morning chat between Kennedy and Delon exposes this “tender romance” at the old folks’ home as a lie, when the new love of Kennedy’s life turns out to be a hooker…and he’s happy about it!
You read that right: instead of burning with rage, or struggling to hold back tears of betrayal, good time George slaps Delon on the back with a hearty embrace and compliments him on the quality of his purchase! Yep, that’s the kind of film this is…
Charo turns up in a cameo as…well, is she ever anything other than herself? trying to smuggle her chihuaha into first class and walking off with her trademark cursing in Spanish routine. Jimmie Walker exclaims it’s “time to do some flying of my own!” and heads off to the john for another doobie. But then, Wagner’s final attempt at ridding himself of his annoying dim bulb of a reporter girlfriend comes into play, and the computer chip he paid a tech to set up during the layover opens the cargo hatch, resulting in “explosive depressurization”.
While 2 girls disco dance to their transistor radio for no apparent reason (never mind radio interference with air traffic control), Jimmie wanders by and starts laying down an impromptu sax solo. He then meanders his way back to his seat to be helpfully informed that he’s totally baked (he ponders this momentarily, before nodding in wholehearted agreement).
The rug starts to tear, things start to rattle, and the plane rips open a hole down the aisle just big enough for boss man Eddie Albert’s chair to fall in and plug it. When Kennedy comes back to pull him out and check if he’s OK, Albert quips “I had the best seat in the house!” Yep, that’s the kind of film we’re talking about here…
Heading over the Alps, Delon informs Kennedy and Warner that he knows the area, since “I used to ski here”, and they use this as a good basis to attempt to belly flop the plane into a landing. In the Alps. You know, snowy mountain peaks? Yeah. So they radio down their idea, and those enterprising Germans manage to pull out the zamboni and set up an entire ski trail, complete with red flag markers for them.
The plane literally slaloms its way to a landing, Ed Begley Jr. makes an even briefer cameo than Kernan or Charo did as a rescuer, Susan Blakely runs back for the incriminating papers, and they all get out in time before the plane blows up. Wagner sees her name on the survivor list and shoots himself. Cut to cheesy stock footage of the Concorde in flight, roll credits (which amusingly enough, note Ed Begley Jr. first!)
Well, I have nothing more to say. If all this hasn’t sold you on what a hilariously entertaining piece of 70’s cinema this is, there’s just no hope for you, and I have to wonder why you’re reading a post at a website that celebrates cult film, music and literature in the first place.
This was the most fun I’ve had since Paganini Horror and The Wild Beasts, and if you take those two out of the equation, for some time before that. Whether the comedy is intentional or (better yet) not, this is one of those films that positively demands a group of drunken friends, to yell comments at the TV Mystery Science style. I’m unsure of how good or bad the earlier films on this set will turn out to be (since I haven’t encountered the same level of vehemence directed at them as to this final entry in the series, I’m guessing not so hot), but this one was an absolute rip, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Concorde: Airport ’79 flies into your port of call here.