There is a certain remoteness to America in older movies that I miss. Small towns used to be the beginning and the end of everything for some, while nowadays a few keywords into Google can take me through billions of vibrant worlds, both real and unreal.
The charm of the small town always gives me something to gnaw on in a film. The miserable couples who stay together because of vaguely lurid apathy, the go-go dancer bar full of broken dreams, the cute college co-ed who doesn't know her way in life, and then a trio of strangers who arrive to screw it all up... it's just like a visit home.
The strangers here are a group of traveling skydivers. For a few dollars per seat, they'll let you sit in their stands and watch them jump from a plane doing acrobatics of all sorts, from the goofy to the daring. One type of jump in particular, the "K" jump, has put them at odds with one another; it's a difficult jump that involves waiting until the last possible moment to pull their chute. It's both invigorating and incredibly dangerous.
It's the old pro who has taken to doing it. Burt Lancaster, here looking about as old and about as tired as one can, plays Mike. He's lost his family, he's lost his will. The young buck, Malcolm (Scott Wilson), is dismayed by what he sees as recklessness, and gets into an endless argument about it with anyone who will argue. Only businessman and ringleader Joe (Gene Hackman, playing slimy without compare) keeps the two in check in time for their next gig.
Things step up in complication when the next gig turns out to be in Malcolm's home town. He visits his aunt and uncle, who'd briefly taken care of him after his parents died, and meets the quiet young college girl boarder that sure has pretty eyes. But before that begins to take off, Mike catches the aunt in a scintillating gaze.
Aunt Elizabeth is played by Deborah Kerr, with a more reserved and dignified performance that this film deserved-- or needs, really. While unabashedly one of my favorite actresses, here Kerr and her character seems completely adrift. Aunt Elizabeth's life is based on a solitary moment of disappointment-- she'd wanted to adopt Malcolm after his parents' death-- and a repressive home life. She enters into an affair with Mike with all the joy and passion of a prisoner condemned to die.
In many ways, the movie feels a bit off. There are a lot of good pieces on the board, but their positions make no sense. A dank depression has set in for all of these lives, and no amount of romance, lust or adrenaline seems to grant them a reprieve.
Which sounds at least like something that should be convincing, but here we see too much of how lovemaking can be akin to leaving your cake out in the rain. With better motivations, better dialogue, fewer endless scenes of skydiving, or at least a more clear cut sense of just what director John Frankenheimer is trying to say, it could have been saved.
Instead, you're stuck with some good moments, some good scenes with some old pros. Which, in and of itself, is also kind of depressing.
This film is currently available on DVD.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Gene Hackman