Sunday, April 21, 2013

Murder on Flight 502 (1975)

Director: George McCowan
Writer: David P. Harmon
Producer: David Chasman
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cinematographer: Arch Dalzell
Original Air Date: Nov. 21, 1975 on ABC (Aaron Spelling & Leonard Goldberg - executive producers); 97 min

Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Kenyon Walker), Polly Bergen (Mona Briarly), Theodore Bikel (Otto Gruenwaldt), Sonny Bono (Jack Marshall), Dane Clark (Ray Garwood), Laraine Day (Claire Garwood), Fernando Lamas (Paul Barons), George Maharis (Robert Davenport) Farrah Fawcett-Majors (Karen White), Hugh O'Brian (Detective Daniel Myerson),  Molly Picon (Ida Goldman), Walter Pidgeon (Charlie Parkins), Robert Stack (Captain Larkin), Brooke Adams (Vera Franklin),  Danny Bonaduce (Millard Kensington)

The chief of aiport security receives a letter in the first class lounge that someone on Flight 502 is going to be murdered, yet the plane is already in the air on its Transatlantic trip to England. The gruff airplane captain teams up with a dorky police officer (en route to extradite a criminal from Scotland Yard) to figure out who the culprit and intended victim is among the passengers in the first class section. While Murder on Flight 502 is more of a mystery-thriller, it resembles the structure of the disaster movie cycle, which was so popular at the time this was produced. We view an eclectic bunch of characters all coming together in one fixed location, and learn about all of their problems before the central crisis makes itself known. The one comforting aspect about watching these people is that, yes, rich folks are just as miserable as we are!

Yes, there's a doctor on the plane.
Because these ensemble disaster-themed pictures adhere to a strict formula, their success more depends upon the details. In this mini-epic for the small screen, there is indeed a colourful bunch to spend ninety minutes with: a boozy mystery writer; a Latin lover who may also be a master criminal; a married couple grieving over the death of her daughter; a stereotypical old Jewish lady; a terminally ill old man; a vengeful widower whose wife died in the emergency ward.... and yes, there is a doctor on board too! There is even Danny Bonaduce as a little prankster, plus Farrah Fawcett and Brooke Adams as dizzy stewardesses (and check out the groovy striped uniforms they wear-- things sure have changed). Best of all, though, is Sonny Bono, more or less playing himself, as an over-the-hill rock star attempting to make a comeback. All that's missing is a guitar-playing nun. 

Even the flight personnel are allowed their quirks. Robert Stack's flight captain is so dedicated to his job, that the role borders upon parody (this film may have prompted the makers of Airplane! to cast the actor in a similar character). And in addition to sweating out on the ground, the chief of security is also griping about his ulcer that won't go away.
I kept waiting for Robert Stack to ask Danny Bonaduce:
"Do you like movies about gladiators"?

In addition to the character's quirks, veteran TV writer David Harmon's script gives these people enough backstory to make most of them culpable, so that one is kept guessing throughout who the villain is. Director George McCowan is no auteur, but a capable filmmaker who knows who to make this thing move. The camera constantly prowls through the jet's interior, so much that the impressive set design (displaying two floors of the plane) calls attention to itself. The "exterior" shots of the jet are obvious miniatures, but since things are kept moving, one can willfully give in to the illusion of moviemaking. As a result this programmer is tremendous fun.

Hugh O'Brian and Farrah wonder who the killer is.

For a 90-minute timeslot, a lot of care went in to making this product shine. The unusually large cast of veterans acquit themselves well with refreshingly three-dimensional roles, and the entire tone of the picture is just tongue-and-cheek enough- not to drown the suspense, but to inform us that the people involved are having as much fun as we are. 

Yes, they really made him say: "The beat goes on."

Because Murder in Flight 502 has fallen into the public domain, it is widely available on numerous cheapo DVDs- even old VHS copies are still likely to turn up. As a purchase from the ninety-nine-cent bin, you can't go far wrong with this little gem.

Below is a gallery of video box art, which samples the numerous different releases of this film on budget labels.

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