Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks fate should take up agriculture.
"All those people killed. Why?"
I've just received a rare honor, but I'll chalk it up to fate. I've been watching Fate Is the Hunter, the 1964 drama about an airline crash and the ensuing investigation, for a review. Why is that a rare honor? It's a "limited edition of 3,000 units." Thus, only 2,999 others will see the movie.
Fate Is the Hunter is based on the Ernest K. Gann novel, but the accompanying booklet notes that the book was a "novelistic memoir" of Gann's own airline days, not a thriller.
Facts of the Case
Consolidated Airlines Flight 22 to Seattle looks like it's going to be a routine flight—until the right engine blows. Even then, the captain is calm until the left engine light and bell go off. He attempts an emergency landing, and the plane crashes into a pier. With the help of a stewardess (Suzanne Pleshette, The Bob Newhart Show) who survived the crash, Sam McBane (Glenn Ford, Plunder of the Sun) tries to figure out what caused the disaster. The answer he's getting is that it's just fate, but McBane doesn't like that answer—and he's more of a hunter than fate.
Fate Is the Hunter starts out slow, as the crew and passengers board. Even the routine task of loading the luggage is shown. Nothing's exciting, until that first engine light comes on. Even then, Captain Jack Savage (Rod Taylor, The Time Machine) is telling a crew member to "Walk, don't run" to look out a window and check on the engine. The radio goes out and Savage is forced to make an emergency landing, but he's calm until the very last moment when he sees that the plane is about to crash into that pier.
The investigation, on the other hand, starts out chaotic as Sam McBane is hounded by reporters at the crash site. It's here that the two main possibilities are laid out: pilot error or fate. McBane doesn't believe in either; he flew Air Force planes in China with Savage, and he's a stickler for facts. His refusal to accept either answer means that he must get at the truth, finally reenacting the fatal flight and discovering the unlikely but very important answer.
While Glenn Ford gets to deliver a rumination on fate at a hearing on the crash, this isn't The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The passengers are seen boarding, but the investigation barely deals with the passengers and their lives, and the plot goes in less philosophical directions. It's the mystery story of a frustrating plane crash investigation, in which every clue turns out to be wrong or misleading, from the discovery that a passenger took out $400,000 in insurance to reports that Savage was seen in a bar. Like any good mystery, it's at least possible for a sharp viewer to solve the riddle before McBane.
Using the possibility that Savage was drunk as a hook, Fate Is the Hunter also is a character study of the late pilot. McBane recalls a base visit from Jane Russell (playing herself) and an earlier air emergency with Savage. He also meets Savage's former fiancee and his current girlfriend (Nancy Kwan, Flower Drum Song), each of whom adds a perspective on the pilot. An early impression of him as a wild man who could be drunk and irresponsible—the one reporters and lawyers are pursuing—gives way to the reality of the man.
Two performers associated with comedy—Wally Cox (Underdog) and Suzanne Pleshette—get dramatic moments. Cox gets to be terrified in the flashback air emergency, while Pleshette plays a traumatized stewardess who reluctantly joins the reenactment.
The black-and-white picture is crisp, without visible flaws, and the sound quality likewise holds up. The musical score does place it in the Sixties, even as it adds the haunting note of tragedy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The main bonus feature is an isolated score and sound effects track. While this might work for a musical, it's rather useless here, unless you're a sound effects fanatic and want to hear a clicking telephone without all that useless dialogue getting in the way. It's a nice way to view a music-heavy scene, such as McBane's tour of Savage's apartment, and Jane Russell's singing is still there, but I still wouldn't call this track necessary.
Also, it might have been nice to see a movie actually based on Ernest K. Gann's book.
Fate Is the Hunter brilliantly combines mystery and character study, turning the mechanics of a plane crash investigation into compelling drama.
It's only for sale at the Screen Archives site.
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Scales of Justice
• Music/Effects Track
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