This week, we here at Ticklish Business are continuing our examination of the famous ‘Airplane in Trouble’ sub-genre. If you watched any disaster films from from the middle of the twentieth century, chances are, you’ve seen at least one. There are more films than we could possibly count, and each brings a constantly evolving quality. Today, I’m turning my attention to the small screen. How would the traditionally large casts and super-sized plots fit into a TV sized budget? Well, here’s everything you need to know about, The Doomsday Flight.
The Doomsday Flight follows the passengers and crew of an airliner going from Los Angeles to New York City when a madman (Edmond O’Brien) calls in a bomb threat. Apparently, he’s planted a pressurized explosive somewhere in the fuselage, and to make matters worse, it’s set to explode when the plane starts to descend. If they land, they blow up. The TV movie features an all-star cast including, Jack Lord, Katherine Crawford, John Saxon, Van Johnson, Ed Asner, Greg Morris and Richard Carlson. William A. Graham directs the film from a script by the legendary Rod Serling.
Despite the potential problems in adapting this sub-genre to television, The Doomsday Flight is a tense and steady watch, never lagging throughout its runtime. The narrative smoothly juggles the constantly alternating action between the airport and on the plane. There are a lot of characters here, and a lot of ground that needs to be covered. In the grand scheme of things, the movie isn’t the most exciting of its type; however, Serling is a master at crafting and mining suspense, and he easily does this here through the story’s reliance on the unknown. Is there a bomb? Will it go off? These are the questions hanging over the passengers and crew, and the performances in the face of the mystery are stellar.
Thanks to an impressive cast doing what they do best, The Doomsday Flight proves to be a tremendous amount of fun, especially for fans of classic entertainment. The MVP is by far and away Edmond O’Brien, who brings the bomber to life in chilling clarity. O’Brien is particularly stunning in his extended phone conversations with Agent Thompson (Lord). Despite his less than threatening appearance, O’Brien taps into a particularly terrifying place in this man’s psyche. He is all at once so powerless, yet so frightening. He has nothing to lose. Visually, he’s hardly an intimidating figure; however, O’Brien’s vocal performance is deeply reminiscent of his days in film noir, and a number of moments are chill inducing.
At the same time, Jack Lord’s casting feels oddly prescient. The actor had been bouncing around the industry since the very early 1950s. However, it would still be another two years before he landed the role of Detective Steve McGarrett in the long running police procedural, Hawaii Five -O. The show, which made Lord a household name, debuted in 1968 and kept him working steadily until its 1980 cancellation.
Meanwhile, Serling’s script steers away from placing too much weight on the passengers. While some works in the sub-genre (like Airplane) show just how much a reliance on a number of characters can bring to a narrative, others (like The Crowded Sky) demonstrate where this added focus can leave a film feeling at best flat, and at worst, overwrought.
Luckily, Serling’s script is carefully structured. The passenger involvement is kept blissfully narrow, placing most of the focus on the crew. Among the passengers, most of the work falls on flamboyant movie star Jack Duchette (John Saxon) and Michael Sazzarin’s unnamed, shellshocked army corporal. Sazzarin is particularly strong, doing a tremendous amount with little dialogue.The actor is amazing in the quiet moments in the script, and it’s easy to know just who this boy is. Meanwhile, Saxon brings an irksome flair to the character of Duchette which runs the risk of being overpowering and annoying. However, Saxon’s charisma shines through when he’s on-screen and it’s difficult to not enjoy the performance.
I can honestly say I had no idea how everything would come to a close after the relatively slow burn second act. While the assumption is things have to end happily, Serling takes the script through so many tight turns, it’s impossible to predict how things will be solved. In fact, the last minute reveal of the device is particularly entertaining. After everything, the ease and simplicity of the moment comes with the winking smirk of an episode of Night Gallery or certain episodes of The Twilight Zone. After all the stress and tension of the rest of the film, it was so close, yet so far away. Three cheers to Rod Serling for the brilliance in the writing.
The Doomsday Flight aired December 13, 1966 on NBC and proved to be a ratings juggernaut. Reviews in period sources were largely positive, with most of the notices going O’Brien’s way. The Daily News out of New York writes that O’Brien “(takes) advantage of every closeup, hamming it up to the hilt, yet still turning in a top-rate job”. The same review goes onto hail Serling as, “a clean writer who wastes no words” and credits him with coming up with “an unexpected twist ending”.
All in all, I found The Doomsday Flight to be a particularly interesting watch. While this isn’t the most magnetic or enthralling of this very specific sub-genre, there are a number well-crafted performances mixed in with a traditionally smart Rod Serling script. If Serling is involved, you know it has to be good. Be sure to give this one a chance, you’ll enjoy it.
The Doomsday Flight is available on YouTube.