Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Concorde Affair (1978)

I’ve spoken before about my half-Italian ancestry.  I don’t really go making a big deal over it, but this, combined with having a rather large family of siblings, led directly to how I express myself in conversation, I think (not necessarily in my writing, though feel free to disagree).  You see, most times, conversing with my family involves one of two modes of speech (and sometimes even a combination of both): yelling and screaming.  It’s not uncommon to have dinner with my family and go home with an acute case of tinnitus, and that’s if all you’re asked about is passing something to someone.  Topical conversations can quickly become shouting matches that would put almost any government bureaucracy and their modes of debate to shame.  This is not to say that there are ill feelings involved.  Far from it.  This is merely the knuckle-dusting, teeth-gnashing, ear-splitting method of communication with which I was raised.  There’s still love at work underneath it all, though for an outsider, this may be difficult to comprehend.  Unlike the titular vehicle of Ruggero Deodato’s The Concorde Affair (aka Concorde Affaire ’79), my family and I don’t need massive engines doing over Mach One to break the sound barrier.  We have our natural speaking voices.

Evil businessmen Milland (Joseph Cotton) and Danker (Edmund Purdom) are up to hijinks, shenanigans, and all-around malfeasance.  Concurrently, a Concorde on a test flight suddenly encounters all sorts of issues and crashes somewhere around the Antilles archipelago.  Maverick reporter Moses Brody (James Franciscus) receives a phonecall from his ex-wife Nicole (Fiamma Maglione), who just so happens to own a swank restaurant in the Caribbean, and she informs him that she has crucial information regarding the plane’s crash and urges Moses to come down and investigate.  So he does.  Meanwhile, stewardess (back before they were more commonly referred to as “flight attendants”) Jean (Mimsy Farmer) turns up as the sole survivor of the wreck but quickly finds herself a blackmail pawn of scoundrel Forsythe (Venantino Venantini).  

The Disaster film was huge in the Seventies.  Irwin Allen made a cottage industry out of these films, some great (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), some not so great (When Time Ran Out, The Swarm).  Starting in 1970 with Airport, there were no less than four films centered on people’s natural fear of flying.  And that’s the essence of them.  These are thrill rides designed for people to have some catharsis over their claustrophobia, aquaphobia, pteromerhanophobia, etcetera.  To that end, they typically showcase a microcosm of characters, running the gamut from working class heroes to snotty rich folks, none of whom can negotiate the obstacles required for survival by themselves.  No, they must band together, however reluctantly, and act as a group.  These films also require one character who is level-headed and resourceful enough to lead the others to safety (like, say, another character named Moses?).  The reason why the plane, ship, skyscraper, whatever fails is fairly inconsequential.  What’s important is that their failure plays on the audience’s inherent distrust of machines (how does something so heavy stay in the air?  How does something so heavy stay afloat?  You get the idea), and their eventual salvation reaffirms mankind’s superiority to machinekind (that is, until Skynet becomes self-aware in 1997) and their mastery of their domain.  When this sort of film is done right.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Deodato’s film seems to miss the point almost entirely.  The first two thirds of the film are focused on Moses finding the downed aircraft and convincing the authorities that there’s something going on.  The last third is focused on his rescuing Jean and then getting her to talk with a flight controller at a London airport as the second Concorde flight starts experiencing the same catastrophic problems.  We get the filmmakers’ idea of the microcosm aboard the second flight.  We have the priest, the cripple, the proud athlete, the cutesy kid with her dolly, the fat guy with heart problems, and so forth.  Yet, none of them is developed beyond these broad descriptions.  None of them actively participates in the action of the film.  None of them means anything to us the way characters like Steve McQueen’s Chief O’Hallorhan or Gene Hackman’s Reverend Scott do.  Further, there are no complications for any character to actively have to deal with midflight.  It’s pretty bad when the main tension of a film is essentially resolved via a phonecall.  It appears as if Deodato and company wanted to make a straight up action film but were saddled with the Disaster elements, so they just threw together whatever they could in about five minutes worth of scriptwriting and filmed it.  Of course, the producers also wanted to get a piece of all that JAWS money which was floating around in the late Seventies, so they inserted a shark inside the plane wreckage.  And did you notice Franciscus’s character’s last name?  No coincidences here. 

That said, the action scenes are capably handled (as you would expect, because Deodato is a capable director).  Further, the underwater scenes are very well-shot and edited, whole minutes of the film going by without dialogue and generating some decent thrills.  The idea of diving to come to the truth is interesting, and that’s part of the point to which the film is heading.  Nevertheless, the film is such a hodgepodge, it never focuses on what it needs to focus on long enough to allow any of it to reach a satisfying conclusion, and what it does focus on simply doesn’t quite fit into the whole in a nice case of Square-peg-round-hole-itis.  This film is nothing short of schizophrenic.  And even this wouldn’t be so terrible an offense if the filmmakers seemed to give a shit about any of it, but I never felt as if they did.  I’ll give you an example.  A character has to amputate a hand to escape certain death.  Maybe a minute later, this same character is shot dead.  So, why the drama with the amputation?  Because at that moment in the film, they needed to generate some suspense.  Afterward, it didn’t matter, because the character had fulfilled every need the script had for him, and it’s heavily debatable that he was even necessary for that.  I suppose there are worse ways to idle away time, but The Concorde Affair feels at what heart it has like nothing more than a solid reason to take a nap.

MVT:  The film uses some miniature effects work that would likely make Ed Wood shake his head.  They are dizzyingly bad.  I was astounded they actually allowed the footage to be used, but in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been, considering the film’s origins.  By that same token, eating it all up was delicious.  Connoisseurs of this sort of thing know what I’m talking about.                 

Make Or Break:  The expositional scenes between Cotton and Purdom illustrate fully how little there actually is going on in the film.  All of the plot’s twists are revealed in these boardroom scenes, and once they are, it becomes clear to the audience that, yes, that’s pretty much all you’re going to get out of this movie.  So, love it or lump it.

Score:  6/10

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