Thursday, July 8, 2010

One A Week Review #33: Murder on Flight 502

I'm proud to announce that, along with, I'll be writing some reviews for Exploitation Retrospect as well (my first for them was Art of Love). This is the first of my regular pieces for them, a compendium of everything right about the works of the one and only Mr. Aaron Spelling. Enjoy!


Made-for-TV movies often straddle the fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime. Be they “ripped from the headlines” or a“disease of the week,” when at their best you get B and C-list has-beens, currentlies, and never-weres trooping through plot-heavy, punchy, just-darn-entertaining throwaway movies. They're potboilers, TV's “beach novels.” My favorites are often the most sensational and trashy ones. MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 is great because it seems to want to be a “disaster movie,” but is instead an exemplary disaster.
This is a 1975 Aaron Spelling production and it is truly the low-rent “prestige” presentation one would hope for out of the most-beloved scholck-meister in TV history. It wears its inspirations proudly. Namely: AIRPORT, SKYJACKED, THE VIPS, and AIRPORT 75.

The sublime here is the cast, and it's worth taking the time to share who's who. The actors and their characters, such as they are, remain the main reason to check this out. Robert Stack is playing his AIRPLANE character at an earlier stage in his career. Polly Bergen chews through scenery like there really is scotch in all those cocktails her character knocks back as she verbally spars with Fernando Lamas. Hugh O'Brien is a police detective, which is not exactly an acting stretch from his time as TV's Wyatt Earp. Walter Pidgeon and Molly Picon (a star of Yiddish theater playing the most stunning stereotype I've possibly ever seen of a lonely European Jewish Grandmother) have a subplot straight from the Love Boat. Farrah Fawcett-Majors (before the hairstyle that made her famous) is the Stewardess on her last flight because she's “tired of being liberated” and ready to marry and settle down. Sonny Bono essentially plays himself in a storyline where he's resented by Dane Clark and Laraine Day, a couple of B-grade movie actors long past they're prime that I'll defy you to recognize.

You also have the second rung of subplots: Ralph Bellamy getting stalked by Theordore Bikel for real and imagined slights. Danny Bonaduce, traveling unsupervised, leaves behind a smoke bomb (ah, the golden age of travel) and gets barely a slap on the wrist for it. Brooke Adams, all teeth and sparkle, walks-on as what seems to be the only stewardess for the rest of the plane and George Maharis wanders around lost as the man back at Mission Control. This is the greatest Fantasy Island cast never assembled.

There's a murder on board, though no one dies until the hour mark. With subplots about two different maybe-murders from the past and some good old fashioned money laundering, there's enough chat to pad out the story while obscuring the fact that hardly anything happens. Two different people are being blamed for deaths from the past. Someone may be a thief and someone else an imposter identified in the most mind-boggling way possible. The clumsiest “set-up-in-the-first-five-minutes plot point” ever slides right by as you're numbed into submission by this assemblage of storylines that don't seem to go anywhere. It's all too, too much as it piles on, but this is a fondue of some top-shelf cheese.

I personally tend to fly commuter cattle-car airlines, so the vast first-class cabin that's the main set is the furthest thing imaginable from today's reality. Since the action cuts between various areas of the plane and airport security on the ground, you never get any sense of the claustrophobia such a locked-room whodunnit requires. We never see any other passengers or sections of the plane, only our Murder She Wrote cum Hotel selection of “characters.” Airlines must not have been very concerned about maximizing every square inch of space like they do today. Nowadays the stuff that happens in this movie would get that plane grounded so fast the oxygen masks would drop.

The production values are low, the fabrics are eye-searing, and the dialogue is atrocious. Bono's character at one point actually says “the beat goes on.” His agent is briefly introduced at the beginning so he can deliver possibly the greatest line in TV movie history: “When you're on top you can rape whistler's mother in Macy's window at high noon and get away with it.” Seriously.

All that aside, this is a heckuva lot more entertaining than FLIGHTPLAN. It's good fun in that classic trash-TV-movie sense. A very low-rent, multi-storyline homage to the style of Arthur Hailey, MURDER ON FLIGHT 502 is also a reminder of what made Aaron Spelling such a beloved TV presence. This collects all of his hallmark touches... except for sex and Heather Locklear.

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