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The third of the Twilight Time DVD discs that debuted in 2011 was Fate is the Hunter, an overlooked suspense thriller from the early 1960s. TT is set to upgrade its old DVD of Violent Saturday soon... let's hope that they also get to bumping John Huston's superlative The Kremlin Letter to Blu-ray.
I first heard the word "spoiler" back in the 1970s, when The National Lampoon magazine offered a sardonic article spoiling dozens of books and movies, essentially revealing the twist ending or the trick finish of pictures like Soylent Green and Citizen Kane. One of the films the Lampoon so happily trashed was 1964's Fate is the Hunter, an aviation movie about the investigation of an airline crash with a heavy loss of life. I assumed that Fate was a dog of a movie, an assumption reinforced when Jon Davison's 1980 air disaster spoof Airplane! arrived. A list of pictures that provided the source material for Airplane! prominently included Fate. With the advent of cable TV, local-broadcast perennials like Fate disappeared from the airwaves. This made it all the more jaw-dropping when we eventually caught up with The Crowded Sky, The High and the Mighty, Cone of Silence and Zero Hour! Parts of each of them did indeed play as unintentional comedies. I was surprised to find that Fate is the Hunter is quite a good movie, even though its "crucial twist" sounds humorous when taken out of context. Oh, I'm not going to spill the beans ... if you're curious, the spoiler is not hard to find on the web.
Like the big '50s hit The High and the Mighty, Fate is the Hunter is from a book by Ernest K. Gann. On the surface it's another plane crash epic that grinds out an evening's entertainment through soap operatic flashbacks about doomed passengers. The surprise is that the film's drama is compelling and the flashbacks are gracefully handled. It's an especially good movie for director Ralph Nelson, who struck gold with some assignments (Lilies of the Field, Soldier in the Rain) but fell on his face with so-called important subject matter: Duel at Diablo, Charly, Soldier Blue. The genre-based pulp of Fate is the Hunter seems perfect for Nelson's talents -- the movie is unpretentious entertainment, with a steady turnover of interesting characters. And it doesn't hurt that star Glenn Ford turns in a caring performance, in a show he might easily have felt beneath his star status.
A Consolidated Air jetliner crashes soon after takeoff from LAX, and a whirlwind investigation begins. Sabotage and mechanical failure appear to be ruled out, yet personnel executive Sam McBane (Glenn Ford) refuses to write off pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) as the cause of the crash, even though character witnesses say he was drinking before the flight. Sam remembers his own wartime experiences flying with the fearless and daring Jack. Sam also hears good and bad about Jack from people who knew him: another old flying buddy (Wally Cox), an heiress to whom Jack was engaged (Dorothy Malone), Jack's girlfriend of a few weeks (Nancy Kwan) and a flyer who became an alcoholic (Mark Stevens). Everyone wants to use the dead Jack as a scapegoat, and the ambitious flight engineer Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff) is anxious to discredit Sam to win an upcoming promotion. Sam almost ruins everything when he claims at a formal hearing that "fate" was responsible for the tragedy. He then decides to let everything ride on a re-creation of the circumstances of the crash, to be conducted in an identical airplane. He asks the only survivor stewardess Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette) to participate -- even though she's barely out of the hospital and has been so shaken up that her memory of the flight is unreliable.
Fate is the Hunter -- please, somebody explain that title to me -- is supermarket pulp of uncommonly good quality, a case of commitment over kitsch. The earlier 'sky jeopardy' movies mentioned above frequently lapsed into embarrassingly silly melodrama, but Harold Medford's script stays sober and on task. There's little here to make jokes about. Glenn Ford had just five years before been one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, but after a string of disappointing pictures we see him knuckling down to the kind of role he excels in, a serious guy tackling a big problem with grace. The show's accident investigation is fairly realistic. The crashed plane is reassembled from pieces, and the engineers prove that there's nothing wrong with one of its engines by putting it on a stand and starting it up.
The drama mounts when Ford's Sam McBane sticks his neck out to keep the inquiry from defaming the memory of a good man. This is also a good Rod Taylor movie. Taylor's Jack Savage disappears at the beginning and is then only seen in the memory flashbacks of various characters. He fleshes out a fairly thin characterization of the 'legendary pilot', whose record wouldn't look good on a career dossier but who earned the trust and love of all who flew with him. The motivating factor for author and pioneering aviator Ernest K. Gann must have been to extol the virtues of old-fashioned pilots before the push-button era.
The film has a sensitive touch with casting. We particularly like the respectful role given Wally Cox. Jane Russell makes a brief but good appearance as a star on a U.S.O. tour, singing No Love, No Nothin', Alice Faye's tune from The Gang's All Here. 1940s star Mark Stevens is also given an interesting part, as an alcoholic ex-pilot equally eager to defend the honor of his old buddy. Without beating drums or constructing cheap villains (even pushy newsman Max Showalter is basically a good guy), the film makes a modest statement about personal integrity. Nancy Kwan is a dedicated scientist, not a China Doll. Constance Towers provides quiet support for McBane, her boss. This must have been an important role for Suzanne Pleshette. We expect the film to concoct a phony romantic triangle around her, but her career stewardess proves as committed to learning the truth as anybody else. In a subgenre known for laughable dramatics, Fate is the Hunter is a solid entertainment.
If you don't already know the "trick" ending, it might sneak up on you. The whole point of this plot device is to prove how a trivial detail can be crucial to uncovering a mystery, and in hindsight it does seem a bit farfetched ... I mean, one would think a little common sense in the cockpit would have saved a lot of lives. But these were the years before movies doted on complex technical issues, and I cut the show some slack for this. It surely didn't warrant being razzed in the National Lampoon.
The only thing that goes a little haywire is when Glenn Ford's McBane interrupts the televised inquiry to suggest that "fate" is responsible, that it's pointless to try to place blame in a case where too many indeterminate factors are at work. It almost sounds like McBain is on the verge of cracking up, but Ford doesn't play it that way. What we think, of course, is that using an argument like that in a review of factual evidence is nonsense. Then again, it's no crazier than when a dozen Wall Street executives deny their collusion to loot America's financial system, with the claim that a bizarre set of unforeseen circumstances were responsible.
The film's special effects vary from excellent to so-so, but they work when needed -- the opening disaster is surprisingly effective. The movie's jet plane appears to be a propeller aircraft with fake jet engines added, probably because no aircraft company would cooperate with the filmmakers. I thought those rocket-like jet exhausts looked a little suspect. The movie's best moment comes when McBane and his team re-create the fatal flight down to the last detail. They don't know why, but the engines and radio start to go out just like they did for Captain Savage. In that instance, it really does seem like they're "tempting fate".
The new Twilight Time Blu-ray of Fate is the Hunter is basically a straight encoding upgrade of the old DVD. The B&W image is sharp and detailed, and the added contrast range brings more life to the many night scenes played in dark shadows.
The titles don't hit for a full ten minutes into the movie, which perhaps influenced Robert Aldrich for his Flight of the Phoenix released the next year -- hey, that's another even more original classic 'air disaster' movie still awaiting Blu-ray treatment. Just two years ago, Denzel Washington starred in the very similar Flight. The pilot in that picture is also a drinker with near-superhuman flying skills, and the post-crash investigation also sees the reconstruction of an entire plane inside an airplane hanger. The message of both movies seems to be that if we're in a plane going down under extraordinary circumstances, we want the most experienced man in the cockpit, one who will instinctively know the right thing to do, sober or not. 1
Twilight provides a second isolated Music and Effects track for Jerry Goldsmith's score. The music is used sparsely but shows a creative streak when the violence behind the titles is tracked with a lonely horn instrument. The M&E track must have been sourced from another combination of audio stems, for the noises of the exploding aircraft are not part of the main title -- either that or Twilight located a clean title track and dropped it in. Julie Kirgo's liner notes tiptoe around the movie's status as an adaptation of a mid-60s supermarket paperback. But trashy books can be made into respectable entertainments!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fate is the Hunter Blu-ray rates:
1. A welcome note from Laura Grieve of the fine review page Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: hmmm, perhaps the film's 'silly' ending isn't so silly after all... 5.27.14):
Hi Glenn! -- Regarding the cause of the crash in Fate is the Hunter -- it just so happens that when I reviewed the Twilight Time DVD release of this movie three years ago, that very week there appeared [a very relevant] a story in the news: The Globe and Mail: Alert on United Airlines Flight.
Given that this happened in 2011, with [an identical problem] causing a total calamity in the early '60s perhaps isn't quite so far-fetched! LOL. Hope you enjoy the similar real-life anecdote. Best wishes, Laura Grieve
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T'was Ever Thus.