I've done a lot of flying lately on commercial carriers and wandered through plenty of different terminals, so let's begin by stating the obvious: The airport landscape has significantly evolved in the 45 years since Arthur Hailey wrote a best-selling novel chronicling the internal workings of a major metropolitan hub. Back in Hailey's day, officials worried more about sniffing out smugglers than fingering potential terrorists; security screening was non-existent; passengers without tickets could slip aboard a plane undetected; food was actually served in coach (for free!); and flight attendants were universally young, pretty, female, and it was okay to call them stewardesses. Yet the more some things change, the more others remain maddeningly the same. Unfortunately, there always will be obnoxious, cranky, arrogant passengers, and enough red tape, delays, rigid procedures, and potential pitfalls to make flying an often exhausting, arduous, and infuriating endeavor.
'Airport' covers it all, albeit with an inch-thick sheen. Producer Ross Hunter's glossy 1970 adaptation of Hailey's potboiler juggles superficial dialogue and soapy plot elements with a jumbo-jet-in-jeopardy premise that's more plausible than any of the over-the-top sequels this blockbuster spawned. More than an excuse to put a stable of pampered Hollywood stars in harm's way, the original 'Airport,' which also stands as the model for the modern disaster flick, tries to paint an accurate portrait of the hectic daily grind that distinguishes busy transportation centers and the unexpected crises that often crop up, and for the most part, it succeeds. The disaster element comprises only a small portion of the film, thus lending the picture more credence than its far campier genre cousins.
Amazingly, 'Airport' was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but its big, brawny framework can't mask its lack of depth. Though director-writer George Seaton, who won Oscars for his screenplays of the perennial holiday classic 'Miracle on 34th Street' in 1947 and 'The Country Girl' in 1954, manages the multiple storylines well, he's saddled with a clunky plot that can't decide whether it's an airport procedural or interpersonal melodrama. Characters are cardboard cut-outs with specific functions (a standard aspect of disaster film writing that would only become more pronounced as the genre spiraled out of control later in the 1970s) and they often seem to move about in robotic fashion, performing on - pardon the pun - auto-pilot.
There's the harried airport general manager (Burt Lancaster) stuck in a loveless marriage with a society matron (Dana Wynter) while wrestling with his feelings for his blonde subordinate (Jean Seberg). And there's the philandering pilot (Dean Martin) who forsakes his dutiful wife (Barbara Hale) for the affection of a young stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset) whom he discovers is carrying his baby. Amid these tangled relationships, a jet gets stuck on a key runway one snowy winter evening as a major storm threatens to shut down the airport, and a disturbed man (Van Heflin) decides to bring an explosive device on a flight headed to Rome so his long-suffering wife (Maureen Stapleton) can collect on his insurance policy after he detonates it. Adding some homespun charm to the proceedings is a sweet elderly stowaway (Helen Hayes) who exasperates the airport staff with her audacious behavior, yet soon finds herself in danger when she weasels her way onto the Rome flight and into the seat next to the bomber.
Like the 707 upon which the motley group of unlucky travelers find themselves, 'Airport' more than shows its age, but one of the joys of watching this seminal disaster movie is spotting various insignificant bits that would become fodder for some of the jokes in the comic spoof 'Airplane!' a decade later. The dire strains of Alfred Newman's music score, the white courtesy telephones, the loading and unloading areas, the dark and stormy night, and some of the outrageous antics of the cartoonish passengers are only a few of the elements that later would be lampooned in arguably the funniest comedy of all time. Yet one of the film's annoying aspects left unscathed by the 'Airplane!' writers is the use of split-screen technology that permeates 'Airport.' Sometimes divided in half, sometimes into quarters, with images also popping up in random areas, the movie's canvas requires the equivalent of an air traffic controller to maintain a degree of order.
Hayes, nearly 40 years after her first Academy Award, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (beating out co-star Stapleton) for her spritely portrayal of the harmless yet devious geriatric stowaway, injecting a welcome note of guile and whimsy into the film. She also began a trend of grande dame actresses boarding doomed jets, as Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson, and Olivia de Havilland, among others, would follow in Hayes' footsteps in subsequent 'Airport' movies. None of them, however, can match her spirited performance, which helps keep this often lumbering picture aloft. 'Airport' is also notable for introducing audiences to the character of Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), the cigar-chomping airplane expert called in to manage the crisis. Kennedy's exaggerated portrayal infuses the proceedings with some cocky energy and must have impressed studio brass, for the actor and his role were written into the scripts of all three 'Airport' sequels. (Lucky George!)
As the first chapter in what would become a laughable franchise, 'Airport' remains a fun ride. It can't match the scope and hamminess of the epics produced by master-of-disaster Irwin Allen, but it delivers a plausible tale, decent tension, and enough action to keep viewers involved. More than four decades after its initial release, 'Airport' doesn't soar to the heights it once did, but it doesn't crash and burn either.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Airport' lands on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a fold-out sleeve. Open the flap and you'll discover a few extra color scene shots and some basic trivia about both the film and Universal Studios in 1970. Inside the case lies the Blu-ray and standard-def DVD, along with instructions on how to access a digital copy of the movie. The BD50 dual-layer disc features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the film immediately begins; no previews or promos precede it. There is no main menu, although a pop-up menu can be accessed during the movie to select settings and navigate supplements.
'Airport' may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but Universal honors this classic disaster flick with a high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's miles ahead of any previous home video release. Any age-related defects, such as dirt, nicks, and scratches, have been meticulously erased, leaving a clean, vibrant image brimming with clarity and well-pitched contrast. Just a hint of grain remains to lend the picture a nice film-like feel, but no evidence of digital doctoring disrupts the smooth presentation. Originally shot in Todd-AO, 'Airport' maintains the elevated level of resolution that distinguishes the format, and that's a blessing for a film with such a wide aspect ratio.
Colors are a tad muted, but certain hues, like the orange accents in the stewardesses uniforms, look bright and polished, and neutrals, such as Jean Seberg's light grey suit, provide solid balance to the picture. Black levels are deep and appropriately inky, and fleshtones, from the creamy complexions of Seberg and Bisset to the enhanced bronze skin of Martin, remain stable and true throughout. Close-ups are pleasingly crisp and background details are always easy to discern.
No banding, noise, or other annoyances afflict the image, which remains consistent and pleasing to watch throughout the entire 137-minute running time. This is another winning transfer from Universal and another stellar entry in the studio's 100th anniversary series.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track pumps out solid sound, but the track doesn't possess the vitality and subtle variances that distinguish the best action mixes. Most of the audio is front-based, and stereo separation isn't particularly pronounced. Surround activity is limited and confined mostly to Alfred Newman's bombastic, melodramatic score, which enjoys a high degree of fidelity and marvelous tonal depth as it effortlessly envelops the room. 'Airport' is somewhat of a clunky movie, and the sound follows suit, lacking aural nuances that would enhance both quiet and high-voltage scenes. Crowd noise in the bustling terminals comes across well, however, as does the cacophonous confusion in the plane's cabin during the film's climax.
Bass frequencies are appropriately weighty, with the roaring jet engines supplying welcome oomph, and dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, even when competing with extraneous elements. The more sedate sequences fare well, too, with no annoying hiss, pops, or crackles disrupting the track. A hint or two of distortion could be detected during especially active moments, but the instances were fleeting.
All in all, this is a seamless, fluid track that nicely serves the material. It won't tax your system, but it gets the job done.
Just a couple of negligible extras adorn this Universal 100th anniversary release. A retrospective featurette would have been a hoot, and an audio commentary surely would have offered some interesting context and perspective, but alas, neither appears on the disc.
The original 'Airport' isn't as campy as its over-the-top sequels, which is kind of a shame, but this blueprint for the modern disaster flick still delivers the goods with an all-star cast, dovetailing story threads, plenty of action, and a gaggle of hysterical extras. Solid video and audio transfers punch up the spectacle, but the lack of extras specifically devoted to the film is disappointing. Still, fans of the genre will welcome this latest Blu-ray addition, and here's hoping Universal plans to take its other air disaster films out of the hangar and prep them for high-def take-offs soon. (Karen Black, Brenda Vaccaro, Lee Grant, and Helen Reddy...we want to see you, too!) In the meantime, though, the original 'Airport' whets our appetite for the junk food to come. Recommended.