Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Skyjacked
In Hollywood’s Golden Age, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the Dream Factory. Nestled away from the other film studios in a place now known as Culver City, MGM was a world all its own where stars were truly born and the movie musical was a way of life. Ran by Louis B. Mayer and (in the early days) Irving J. Thalberg, the studio set the standard for glossy productions and the sort of big, brassy, feel-good pictures people wanted to see during the Great Depression and World War II. But the studio eventually lost its stride and began to make movies that just missed the mark by an inch or two. A great collection of these films eventually led to MGM selling large parts of its studio lot to developers intent on making Culver City the hardest place to drive in the Southland, selling its greatest asset — its film library — to Warner Bros, and eventually getting out of Culver entirely by selling all of its remaining historic buildings to Sony. The Dream Factory shuttered and the MGM which emerged from this tumult never really found the drive or charge it had in its heyday. This weekend’s cheesy movie, Skyjacked is one of the MGM productions which aided in its long march away from its storied studio space.
The plot concerns Captain Henry O’Hara (Charlton Heston), an ex-military man with a wandering eye — a bog-standard airplane captain for the genre. His eye once wandered in the direction of Angela Thacher (Yvette Mimieux), who now holds the attention of co-pilot Sam Allen (Mike Henry). This is also a pretty typical set-up for one of these pictures, as is its mixture of first-class passengers. Rosey Grier makes his film debut as jazz violinist Gary Brown. Mariette Hartley makes a glorified cameo as a pregnant woman traveling alone. Walter Pigeon plays US Senator Arne Lindner while Nicholas Hammond plays his son Peter. Jeanne Crain and Ross Elliot play an older couple by the name of Shaw. James Brolin plays an Army man by the name of Jerome K. Webber and Susan Dey also makes her screen debut as Elly Brewster, a young woman who discovers a bomb threat in the first class lavatory.
Soon, O’Hara finds himself diverting the plane to Anchorage, Alaska while trying to keep the passengers in coach quiet and attempting to suss out the identity of the hijacker. It’s pretty clear it is one of the people in first class and, sadly for the film, that person’s identity is discovered far too quickly. But the time Webber reveals himself, the tension is pretty much spent; even as the plot introduces a new problem for O’Hara: Webber demands to be flown to Moscow.
And if the plot sounds like the set-up for a moderately entertaining thriller, that’s part of the charm. Skyjacked, adapted from David Harper’s novel Hijacked, has all the right elements for a good-but-not-great flick. Its problems, though, become evident with the attempt to make it conform to the airplane disaster subgenre defined by Airport and director John Guillermin’s attempts to break the visual language of established in airplane movies as far back as Zero Hour.
To be honest, the attempt is admirable. Most of the film was shot on an actual Boeing 707 and Guillermin finds unconventional ways to shoot inside of it, but a lot of the camera moves are showy feats breaking whatever tension the story almost builds. Slap-pans between the sweaty faces of Heston, Henry, and actor Ken Swofford (playing navigator John Bimonte) just look plain silly. But then they are married to an additional slap-pan to Sgt. Ben Puzo (Claude Akins) in the Anchorage control tower; making the entire thing feel more like self-parody than the taught tension the movie desperately wants to convey.
Additionally, the film is peppered with laugh-inducing flashbacks to O’Hara’s affair with Angela and Webber’s fantasies of being a decorated war hero. They clash so harshly with the established tone of the film that you may laugh involuntarily when the screen first dissolves to one.
They also suggest the other passengers in first class will get flashbacks of their own, but this never comes to pass. Consequently, the younger actors like Dey and Hammond find little to do but recite their lines while the more established Pidgeon manages to eke out the beginnings of an actual character. Grier, thanks to his naturally big persona, fares the best in this regard as he infuses Gary with a lot of charm. He also happens to be the first person to make Webber for the hijacker and the movie doesn’t do anything with it.
Brolin, for his part, is a delight — but not in the way MGM or the director would hope. He strikes up a nice rapport with Grier in the early parts, but just goes cuckoo-bananas once he’s revealed as the threat. It’s a sweaty, bug-eyed performance that is, on the whole, laughable. And if you pick up on Brolin’s attempt to channel a little bit of Anthony Perkins’ nervous energy, it’s even a little bit sad. But in his defense, he actually resembles Perkins in this more than he does his own later, grizzled persona. Going for a Perkins pitch is not a bad choice per se, it just fails to connect here.
Part of the problem may be Guillermin himself, who was a noted perfectionist and known for shouting matches with cast and crew. That sort of behavior only really works for James Cameron. It is entirely possible he never thought Brolin’s take as the correct one or, possibly, encouraged him to go bigger. Then again, when you’re acting opposite Heston, bigger is inevitable.
The star delivers that dependable Heston performance. Whether displaying that aloof swagger or chewing the set for all its caloric value, it’s easy to see why movie studios wanted him to front movies. And since this was made in 1972, he hadn’t quite acquired that leathery tan which would soon make romantic scenes with younger actresses look unpleasant.
And, as it happens, Heston would’ve been great in a tighter thriller. But its clear MGM wanted Skyjacked to be its foray into the airplane disaster genre, even if it meant all those extra characters would literally use an escape hatch out of the film before the climax.
Unlike a lot of films we’ve covered recently, Skyjacked‘s cheese comes from its failings. The direction is extra, the tension fizzles, and the performances leave one feeling the cast was out for a nice stroll. Nonetheless, there is fun to be had here; particularly Akins’s bizarre, folksy Air Force sergeant. He seems imported from another film. In fact, he never appears on screen with the principle cast! The film also has a certain educational value as it presents the earnest ways many film studios were trying to reverse their fortunes in the early ’70s. Skyjacked actually buoyed the studio for a short time, but it was not the success Guillermin would later create for 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. with The Towering Inferno. For our purposes, though, it’s a nice slice cheese as only Heston could plate.
Skyjacked is available for rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and iTunes.