Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Runaway!" - Irwin Allen's Day Off?

Seeming on the surface as if it must be one of Irwin "The Master of Disaster" Allen's TV projects, this 1973 TV-movie in fact has nothing at all to do with him. It was produced by Harve Bennett (of the four Star Trek sequel movies) and David Lowell Rich, who also directed. Allen was still in the throes of his big screen period, having finished the stellar The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and now working on the even bigger The Towering Inferno (1974), so it was up to other folks to bring disaster crashing to the small screen. (Allen would indeed return to the small screen towards the end of the decade with Fire!, Flood!, Cave-In! and other television opuses.) Yes, we're still caught in the TV-Movie Time Tunnel and before we come out, we're looking into Runaway!

The ostensible star of Runaway! is Ben Johnson, then a recent Oscar-winner for The Last Picture Show (1971), a movie he endlessly referred to as dirty even as it brought him to a higher level of fame and acting notoriety. Johnson later appeared in The Swarm (1979.) He plays a Colorado train conductor, about to turn sixty-five and retire, who is guiding a group of more than 200 skiers down a mountain after their shenanigans on the slopes.

On board also is Vera Miles (of Inter- national Airport and countless other TV-movies and feature films) as a smoking, drinking sophisticate with a sarcastic air and a detached sense of anti-camaraderie.

Long and curly-haired stud Ben Murphy sidles up to her and attempts to pick her up! She's flattered, but sends him packing as it's quite clear he intends to use her as a meal (and travel!) ticket...

...oh, and also her husband Ed Nelson is with her! He asks her who her youthful friend is and we soon discover that this couple, who share children together, is on the verge of permanent break-up, all revealed through arch, trite dialogue between them. Nelson would soon pop up in Airport 1975 (1974) as the navy pilot who first attempts the mid-air transfer of the stricken plane.
Also among the other passengers of this train are pretty Laurette Spang (already a veteran of Short Walk to Daylight, 1972, and about to be cast as a stewardess in Airport 1975) and Kip Niven (who managed to appear in not only Airport 1975, but Earthquake, 1974, and The Hindenburg, 1975, as well!)

Then we have dreamy Ray Danton as a college professor along on a school ski trip. He's been strapping on more than skis, however...

...he's also been trying out the slopes of a coed, Darleen Carr. She wants to continue their sleepover slaloms even beyond the weekend they've just shared, but he's back in family man mode and wants none of it.

She happens to catch the penniless Murphy stealing someone's train ticket and graciously pays his way, though she still can't get her mind off Danton. (And, even though he's quite the jerk in this, who couldn't, cute as Murphy is!)

Still filling out the roster of featured passengers, we come upon Martin Milner and his young son Lee Mont- gomery. Montgomery has just disappointed his dad by failing to succeed on skis.

Milner, who looks like he could use some better lighting, was still starring on Adam-12. He would proceed to Hurricane (1974) and Flood! (1976), the latter for Irwin Allen. (He also starred on Allen's adventure series Swiss Family Robinson.)

Montgomery, whose sister Belinda figured heavily in our previous post, had just starred in Ben (1972), the sequel to Willard (1971) and would continue as a young actor through the 1980s. Some might recall him from Burnt Offerings (1975.)

Once we've become acquainted with the key people on board, about 12 minutes in, it becomes apparent to Johnson that the train, in fact, has no brakes!! The vessel begins hurtling along its tracks at up to 60 miles per hour, eventually reaching 70 mph while a considerable curve awaits!

Because of all the unruliness of the half-drunk skiers in back, Johnson can't raise the conductor on his walkie-talkie. He also cannot do anything from behind the train's engine since the man he sent back there to work on it has fallen and been knocked unconscious!

When he is finally able to contact the conductor, the old man pulls the lever, but practically nothing happens! The train is going so fast that the emergency brakes are useless...

Panic starts to set in as the passengers begin to discover that something isn't right. There is scurrying and flailing around as they are all told to remove everything that's being stored overhead and to nestle themselves in around the seats on the floor.

Meanwhile, at the train station, repre- sentatives who are tracking the situation have informed Johnson that there is no way he can make the upcoming turn at the speed the train is careening at.

Carr is desperate to be held by her older lover, but he still won't have it. Now he's afraid that if they are killed and discovered in one another's arms that his family will know he was unfaithful! (Carr, by the way, was a busy TV actress whose sister was Charmian Carr, Liesl of The Sound of Music, 1965.)

Milner assists train employee Lou Frizzell in trying to clear some snow and ice off of the brake equipment, but that turns into an epic fail, er fall, when Frizzell can't hold on to Milner's hand any longer and falls to his death under the thundering wheels of the train!

Murphy, who heretofore has been a mostly selfish lout, initially refuses to comfort little Montgomery while his father is outside helping to get Frizzell killed, but eventually acquiesces and invites the boy to snuggle into his ready-made bunk with him under one of the cocktail tables. He also assists a couple of blonde coeds get situated amongst their seat cushions on the floor.

Meanwhile, all the authorities wait for the runaway train to reach the dreaded curve in the tracks and when Johnson somehow manages to slide it along the tracks with success, they seem almost disappointed that they didn't get to run out and extinguish any fires or sweep up corpses...!

But it gets worse. Since the train has made it around the severe curve, the only place left for it to go is the train station, which is a dead end!

Literally, the track runs out right in front of the station and, at the rate it's going, this steel panel won't stop it. It will tear right through the wall into the interior. So the place is evacuated.

Their petty differences now meaningless in the face of this horror, Miles and Nelson cling to each other in fear and newfound devotion. Once disaster hits, she never again wants either a drink or a cig...! It's a miracle cure.

One of the passengers is in total shock and keeps loudly moaning and refusing to take his place on the floor much to Spang's dismay.

She repeatedly tries to get him to join her and Niven on the floor, but he's completely unres- ponsive. (Niven has virtually a non-role. On-hand merely to embrace Spang, though there are worse things one could be assigned to do!)

Danton looks on disdainfully, refusing to do anything about the situation. Incidentally, the man beside him, Ross Elliott, was in Skyjacked (1972) and was soon to be cast as a fire deputy chief in The Towering Inferno (1974.)

Finally, Miles gets up and goes to comfort the shock-laden man. She presses him up against her chest and begins to gently rock him into submission. This maternal act brings out the adoration of her estranged husband Nelson who decides maybe he'd still like a little of that after all. (Even this man, Than Wyenn, had a role in Black Sunday, 1977, as an Israeli ambassador!)

Milner, though, has decided he's had enough of the whole damn thing. He drags Montgomery out of the cubby he was enjoying with Murphy, puts his coat on and explains that they are going to jump from the 70 mph train before it crashes! The conductor is adamant that they'll be killed in the process.

Milner ultimately cannot do it. Though he had told Montgomery he was sick of hearing "I'm sorry" over the spoiled ski trip, he now utters those very same words to his son as he realizes he cannot get them off the train as he'd hoped to.

At the train station, the potential demise of 214 people has brought out a swarm of three (...) reporters and one ambulance! They for reasons known only to them find it necessary to congregate on the very spot where the train is expected to crash and derail.

Nelson, with Miles' input, composes a letter to leave for their children, so that they'll know that their parents spent their last few moments alive together in love again.

Carr doesn't have it nearly so good. Because Danton refuses to hold her, she now feels hopelessly alone and unwanted and decides to end it all by hopping off the train!

Murphy, sensing something amiss, follows her out to the platform and tries to talk her back off the ledge, but she's awfully reluctant.

The unforeseen way in which this hazardous situation with the loss of brakes is resolved is tied in, timing-wise, to the fate of Carr on the precipice of the train steps. The writers were chugging (forgive me) for maximum suspense. They got a modicum of it instead. Still, we love these creaky, but endearing, prolific old telefilms packed with people who belong to our very own Disaster Movie Club. (Runaway! here.)


Gingerguy said...

I must be losing my mind but as I was reading this I mixed it up with Avalanche Express (the skiiers?) and was waiting for the avalanche. Anyway!...reading about all the backstories reminded me of another Vera Miles disaster tv movie "Smashup On Interstate 5" I think she was with David Groh in that one. I digress.
These endless tv movie clones/rip-offs of feature films made my week. I was always dying for it to be Friday as I heavily favored ABC in the 70's.
I remember Kip Niven as a co-pilot in one of the airports, the hair.
Lol on the reporters and one ambulance.
This really took me back as life is full circle. TV was the greatest when I was a kid. Then it was only movies for me. Now the theaters are full of comic book films and I am watching tv again.

Musicals. Rock. said...

These colourful clichés in every disaster movie are so enjoyable! I especially like how nonchalant the 'what do we do crew' seem to be in this film. That's the name my brother and I gave the people stuck in homebase, desperately calling the doomed train or ship or plane and giving silly advice. I think we came up with it after seeing Cassendra Crossing. I remember a lady in a padded power suit letting out a dramatic "what do we do?"!

It's a treat to come across Darlene Carr. She dubbed some of the younger kids in Sound of Music if I remember correctly.

Forever1267 said...

If only they could try making some of these again. so dumb! So fun! I don't think I've seen this particular one, but there are so many, many others! I'll have to keep a look out!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, as "Runaway!" took off, I thought, "Oh God... they're going to pad this all out with flashbacks" as I think "Smashup" was (?) and I know that "Hanging By a Thread" and "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" were, but thankfully the story just progresses along. As a kid, I always somehow got "Smashup on Interstate 5" confused with "Honky Tonk Freeway" (!!) and would look for Jessica Tandy in "Smashup!" LOLOL Harriet Nelson was in it....

OMG, Musicals.Rock! That's hilarious about the "What We Do Crew!" The great Ingrid Thulin was in "The Cassandra Crossing," taking a lot of guff off of Burt Lancaster. That one upset me upon first viewing because John Phillip Law was wasted as an army officer (or something) instead of being on the train. But I do love that movie....! Unreal cast.

Forever1267, I have the movie linked at the very tail end of the tribute if you want to watch. What's weird is that the copy keeps flipping back every so often from slightly blurry to quite decent quality... That's one reason why the caps are so iffy, that and the fact that the train is always moving, so the people are rarely entirely still in the frame, especially once the brakes die! LOL Thanks!

Michael Whelan said...

Oh, I remember this!! I think it was an ABC Saturday night movie? In 1973, I was in a heightened state of "disaster" mode because of Poseidon Adventure and this movie was quite welcome!

Poseidon3 said...

Michael, don't hate me, but I was five (!), so this one totally passed me by! But by 1975 I was fully on the disaster lookout myself after being taken to "The Towering Inferno" in late-1974 and then "Airport 1975" soon after! :-)