' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Skyjacked (1972)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Skyjacked (1972)

At its core "Skyjacked" comes across as just another mid-flight thriller, packaged with spare parts of dozens of other bad-stuff-happens-on-a-plane midnight movies screened during the daytime. There is a bomber aboard a plane sending ominous messages about he wants. There is an assortment of passengers whose respective plights are utilized to heighten the tension, such as a Senator (Walter Pidgeon) communicating with the President and - wait for it - a pregnant woman (Mariette Hartley) not due for a month who, well, obviously. And the Captain, Henry O'Hara (Charlton Heston), who was once married to the chief stewardess, Angela Thatcher (Yvette Mimieux), and still has feelings for her it seems despite now being married to someone else which taken in conjunction with "Airport" last week begs the question: Do movies think airline employees can only fraternize with one another? Do they think that's in the employee handbook? If all this sounds non-promising, potential viewer, refrain from fret for "Skyjacked", shockingly, is something more.


Consider a shot midway through the film that finds our skyjacker holding aloft a live grenade. Director John Guillermin sets it so we see the live grenade in the foreground of the frame and to the right while the pregnant woman cowers in the background to the left. By placing them in the shot together he's essentially acknowledging that they exist in this same universe and that the threat to her is real. She's not just being trucked in to add additional drama. Yes, the baby will have to burst forth before the movie ends but the moment itself is handled with the bare minimum of saccharine melodrama, opting instead for a surprisingly authentic edge. When that woman is pushing, she's pushing, and when Angela is coaching, she's coaching. It's for real. So's "Skyjacked".

Maybe that tone can be traced back to the beginning, not providing broad background details for each important character before the plane lifts off, but basically going right to liftoff. Morsels of information are divvied up in the air, and mostly after a young passenger, Elly (Susan Dey), goes to the lavatory and finds a message scribbled in lipstick, like Heath Ledger's Joker has been there. It says: "Bomb on plane. Divert to Anchorage Alaska. No Joke, No Tricks. Death." When Elly exits the bathroom to tell of what she's seen, she leans backs and says, wistfully but honestly, "I've never thought about dying." And normally we wouldn't think about dying during an exercise in genre filmmaking, yet we do. The possibility of anyone - everyone - dying feels palpable in filmmaking that pointedly refuses to take the edge off.

Consider the forced landing that occurs in Anchorage. Yes, it's dramatic. Yes, the captain has to make it happen amidst punishing rain. But Guillermin puts no music on the soundtrack. It becomes Disaster Movie Verité. You'll want to clutch the armrest you don't have. The villain is just as convincing. Eventually revealed as Sgt. Jerome K. Weber, a Vietnam vet who has apparently been rendered shell-shocked, he is played with a truly frightful flop sweat and palpably itchy trigger finger by James Brolin. His ploy, an ode to so many of the gloriously nutball ruses of the skyjacker's era, is to take the plane to Russia where he will defect, presumably with all sorts of American secrets as well as an American senator in tow. It's telling, however, that this storyline is never played to maximize the Cold War tension that very much would have been present in a movie theater in 1972. The Russians, as near as we can tell, view Sgt. Jerome K. Weber as derisively as the Yanks. He's got a screw loose. Everyone knows it.


Throughout the film Weber returns to a flashback, a la Ted Striker, of a military ceremony where he parades in front of his fellow men and women in uniform and greets a commanding officer to receive some sort of commendation for glory or valor or some such. Eventually, though, it dawns on us that this flashback isn't really a flashback at all; it's a dream sequence. He fantasizes the same scene, in fact, sitting on the Russian tarmac, expecting a hero's welcome, only to soon realize it's not to be. And his delusion doesn't seem far off from the Harlequin delusion of Captain O'Hara, remembering, as it were, a happier time with Angela, one that might not have ever existed and for certain won't ever take place in whatever future is to come.

Odd as it may sound, "Skyjacked" made me think of Lindi Ortega's song "Waitin' On My Luck To Change", a glorious country ballad that puts its narrator aboard a jetliner, a place away from "down below where it's just trouble and pain." Up above, we can dream of something, anything better. Then, the plane lands. Reality returns. Dreams wilt and die. Vaya con dios.

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