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Back in the early 1970s, the first time I heard the word "spoiler" was in The National Lampoon magazine, which 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 they so happily trashed was 1964's Fate is the Hunter, an aviation movie about the investigation of the crash of an airliner with a heavy loss of life. I assumed that Fate was a dog of a movie, an assumption reinforced when a list of pictures that provided the source material was revealed for producer Jon Davison's 1980 Airplane! With the advent of cable TV, few of these shows were seen on TV with any frequency, which made it all the more jaw-dropping to catch up with The Crowded Sky, The High and the Mighty, Cone of Silence and Zero Hour! Fate is the Hunter takes itself very seriously, but I was surprised to find that it's quite a good movie, even though its "crucial twist" sound 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 High and the Mighty, Fate is the Hunter is from a book by Ernest K. Gann, and 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 "important" subject matter: Duel at Diablo, Charly, Soldier Blue. The solid 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 solid, caring performance, in a show he might easily have felt beneath his star status.
A Consolidated Air jetliner crashes soon after takeoff from LAX, starting a whirlwind of an investigation. 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: an another old flying buddy (Wally Cox), an heiress Jack was engaged to (Dorothy Malone), Jack's girlfriend of a few weeks (Nancy Kwan) and a flyer who became an alcoholic (Mark Stevens). But everyone wants to use the dead Jack as a scapegoat, and Sam's ambitious flight engineer Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff) is anxious to discredit Sam to win an upcoming promotion. Sam almost ruins everything by claiming that "fate" was responsible for the tragedy, but 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 stewardess Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette), the only survivor, 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 -- may be supermarket pulp, but it's of uncommonly good quality, a case of commitment over genre. 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. Five years before Glenn Ford had been one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, but after a string of disappointing pictures we see him knuckling down on the kind of role he excels in, serious guys tackling big problems with grace. 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', the kind of guy who wouldn't look good on a career dossier but who earned the trust and love of all who flew with him. This must have been the motivating factor for author Ernest K. Gann, to extoll the virtues of old-fashioned pilots before the push-button era.
As a straight accident investigation, the show is fairly realistic. The crashed plane is reassembled from pieces, and the engineers prove that there's nothing wrong with one of it's engines by putting it on a stand and starting it up. The drama of course comes when Sam McBane sticks his neck out to keep the inquiry from defaming the memory of a good man. 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 Alice Faye's tune from The Gang's All Here, No Love, No Nothin'. 40's 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 people with 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 with her at the middle, 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 more crazy than when a dozen Wall Street executives deny their collusion to loot America's financial system, and then 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 very effective. The movie's jet plane appears to be a propeller aircraft with fake 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".
Twilight Time's DVD of Fate is the Hunter begins cold with a vintage promo for the Fox CinemaScope epic The Egyptian, which they'll be bringing out on DVD and Blu-ray on July 12 ... and we are excited about it. The transfer of Fate is the Hunter is clean and flawless, showing the beauty of perfected C'Scope lenses and how good B&W looked in this format when filmed by somebody as talented as Milton Krasner. It makes us wonder what Fox's last B&W 'scope film was. And what title was the last to use the famous CinemaScope fanfare -- I mean, besides the novelty re-purposing for "Lucasfilm Ltd." productions.
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, there's another even more original 'air disaster' movie.
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.
A trailer is included as well; it sells the movie along obvious lines. Julie Kirgo's liner notes this time around also seem a bit intimidated by 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 rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.