Hanging By A Thread (1979, directed by Georg Fenady)


A group of old friend who call themselves the Uptowners’ Club (yes, really) want to go on a picnic on top of a remote mountain.  The only problem is that they have to ride a cable car up to the mountain and there are reports of potentially bad weather.  It’s not safe to ride in a cable car during a thunderstorm.  Drunken ne’er-do-well Alan (Bert Convy) doesn’t care and, since his family owns both the mountain and the tramway, his demands that he and his friends be allowed to ride the cable car are met.  One lightning strike later and the members of the Uptowners’ Club are stranded in a cable car that is perilously suspended, by only a frayed wire, over treacherous mountain valley.

With no place to go, there’s not much left for the members of the Uptowners’ Club to do but bicker amongst themselves and have lengthy flashbacks that reveal every detail of their own sordid history.  Paul (Sam Groom) is angry with Alan because Alan is now engaged to his ex-wife (Donna Mills).  Sue Grainger (Patty Duke) is angry with everyone else because they don’t want to admit how their old friend Bobby Graham (Doug Llewellyn) actually died.  The other members of the Uptowners’ Club are angry because there’s not much for them to do other than watch Duke and Convy chew on the scenery.  Because of the supposedly fierce winds, someone is going to have to climb out on top of the cable car and repair it themselves.  Will it be Paul or will it be cowardly drunk Alan?  On top of everything else, Paul is set to enter the witness protection program and has got hitmen who want to kill him.

This made-for-TV disaster movie was produced by Irwin Allen.  Are you surprised?  It’s also three hours long and amazingly, Leslie Nielsen is not in it.  It’s hard to understand how anyone could have produced a cable car disaster film and not given a role to Leslie Nielsen.  Cameron Mitchell’s in the film but he’s not actually in the cable car so it’s a missed opportunity.  Any film that features Patty Duke detailing how her friends got so drunk that they ended up killing the future host of The People’s Court is going to at least have some curiosity value but, for the most part, Hanging By A Thread gets bogged down by its own excessive runtime and lack of convincing effects.  Hanging By A Thread came out at the tail end of the 70s disaster boom and it shows why the boom didn’t continue into the 80s.

The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1983, directed by Georg Fenady)


When civil engineer Carl Miller (James MacArthur) discovers that the Madison Bridge is on the verge of collapsing, he goes to his superior (Philip Baker Hall!) and explains that the bridge has to be closed down or people could die.  Since there wouldn’t be a movie if anyone listened to Carl’s concerns, he’s ignored.

No sooner has Carl been told that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about than the bridge suddenly starts to collapse.  With both ends of the bridge collapsing into the river below, a diverse group of people find themselves stranded in the middle.  The group is made up of the usual group of disaster movie characters and, of course, one of them is played by Leslie Nielsen.  This time, Nielsen is a crooked businessman with a mistress (played by Barbara Rush) and a baby to worry about.  Eve Plumb (who was a member of the original Brady Bunch) is a nun.  Richard Gilliland is a wounded cop.  Gregory Sierra is a landscaper.  Perhaps most improbably, clean-cut Desi Arnaz Jr. is a bank robber who keeps losing his temper and pointing a gun at everyone.  Carl has to figure out how to get everyone off of the bridge before the entire things collapses.  This leads to many shots of chunks of concrete falling off what’s left of the bridge, as if we need to be reminded that it’s dangerous to be on a bridge that’s in the process of very slowly collapsing.

After finding success making movies about fires, overturned ocean liners, volcanoes, cave-ins, and killer bees, I guess it only makes sense that Irwin Allen would finally get around the producing a movie about a collapsing bridge.  The Night The Bridge Fell Down was filmed in 1980 but it wasn’t aired until 1983.  When it did air, it played opposite the series finale of M*A*S*H, which remains one of the highest rated single episodes of television ever aired.  It’s obvious that no one had much faith in a three hour film about a collapsing bridge and it only aired because NBC needed something — anything — to air at a time when they knew no one would be watching.

Because of the lengthy amount of time between the film’s production and it’s airing, The Night The Bridge Fell Down is the type of serious and plodding disaster film that was popular in the 70s but, by the time 1983 rolled around, had been rendered obsolete by the satiric bards of Airplane!  Airplane‘s Leslie Nielsen even appears here, giving the type of serious performance that he specialized in before people discovered that he was actually a very funny man.  Nielsen doesn’t give a bad performance but everything he says is thoroughly undercut by how difficult it is to take Leslie Nielsen seriously.  No matter what Nielsen says, it always seems like he’s on the verge of adding, “And don’t call me Shirley.”

The main problem with The Night The Bridge Fell Down is that it’s a three-hour movie and that’s a long time to spend with a group of thinly characterized people on a bridge.  I guess the film does feature an important message about maintaining roads and bridges.  Watch it next Infrastructure Week.

Cave-In! (1983, directed by Georg Fenady)


Sen. Kate Lassiter (Susan Sullivan) is visiting a cave in order to determine whether it’s safe to leave it open to the public.  Giving the senator and her group the grand tour is Gene Pearson (Dennis Cole), who is not only a park ranger but who is also Kate’s ex-boyfriend.  The question as to whether or not the cave is safe for the general public is answered by a sudden cave-in, which leaves Kate, Gene, and the others trapped.  Now, Gene has to lead the group across often dangerous terrain to safety.

Along with Kate, the group includes a bitter cop named Joe Johnson (Leslie Nielsen!), his wife Liz (Julie Sommars), arrogant Prof. Harrison Soames (Ray Milland), and the professor’s shy daughter, Ann (Sheila Larkin).  Joe and Liz are struggling to keep their marriage together.  Prof. Soames refuses to allow his daughter to have a life of her own.  The six of them are going to have to somehow work together if they’re going to survive this cave-in!  Of course, they’re not alone.  There’s a seventh person in the cave.  Tom Arlen (James Olson) is a dangerous convict who was in the cave hiding out from the police.  Now, he’s trapped along with everyone else.

Cave-In is a pretty standard disaster movie.  Produced by Irwin Allen, it was originally filmed in 1979 but it didn’t air on NBC until 1983.  By that time, Airplane! had pretty much reduced the disaster genre to a joke.  Ironically, Leslie Nielsen himself has a starring role in Cave-In, playing exactly the type of character that he parodied in both Airplane! and Police Squad.  At the time he filmed Cave-In, Neilsen was still a dramatic actor but by the time the movie aired, his deadpan style was firmly associated with comedy.  Even when his dialogue is serious, the natural instinct is to laugh.

Cave-In gets bogged down by flashbacks.  Even though everyone should be concentrating on making their way to safety, it instead seems that they’re too busy obsessing on their backstory.  Since no one’s backstory is that interesting, the flashbacks don’t do much to liven up the film and, unfortunately, a cave-in just isn’t as compelling as a fire in skyscraper or an upside down boat.

On the plus side, every disaster movie needs an arrogant bastard who makes escape unnecessarily difficult and, in the 70s, no one played a better arrogant bastard Ray Milland.  Otherwise, Cave-In is a forgettable entry from the final days of the disaster genre.