Friday, September 2, 2016

#2,189. Earthquake (1974)

Directed By: Mark Robson

Starring: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy

Tag line: "When the big one finally hits L.A"

Trivia: At the time, this set the record for the biggest number of stunt people employed on one picture, with a total of 141

For years, I considered 1974’s Earthquake a “second-tier” ‘70s disaster flick, a step below the “big three”, AKA Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Watching it again, though, I see I was wrong. Earthquake is every bit as entertaining as the decade’s other disaster films, and in a way offers even more mayhem and destruction than its predecessors.

It’s a seemingly normal day in Los Angeles. Former football player turned architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) argues with his domineering wife, Remy (Ava Gardner), then heads to the home of young widow Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold) to drop off an autographed football for her son Corry (Tiger Williams). Stewart feels responsible for Denise, seeing as he was the one who sent her late husband on the job that cost him his life. What’s more, he’s developed feelings for Denise, though, despite Remy’s assertions he’s having an affair, Stewart has yet to act on those desires. Further complicating matters is the fact that Stewart works for Remy’s father, Sam Royce (Lorne Green), who goes out of his way to keep both Stewart (now a top man in his field) and his overbearing daughter happy.

Elsewhere in the city, gung-ho policeman Lou Slade (George Kennedy) is pissing off his superiors; stuntman Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) is working closely with his associate Sal (Gabriel Dell) to prepare his latest death-defying feat, while Sal’s sister Rosa (Victoria Principle) heads off to the movies; grocery store manager (and National Guard volunteer) Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner) is dealing with difficult customers; and a tremor shakes the entire town, giving some folks a good scare.

This is nothing new, of course. Living in Southern California, the locals have grown accustomed to the ground moving from time to time. But this recent tremor was different than most. For one, it cracked the Los Angeles Dam, where a worker is killed when an elevator shaft inexplicably fills with water. As a team of engineers tries to pinpoint the problem, the gang at the California Seismological Institute is looking into reports that a much larger quake is on its way, one powerful enough to destroy the city. 

At least that’s what recent college grad Walter Russell (Kip Niven) believes. Per his research (which was inspired by a formula his mentor devised), another tremor will hit around mid-morning, and if it does, a major earthquake will follow soon after. The Institute’s supervisor Dr. Willis Stockle (Barry Sullivan) is skeptical at first, but has a change of heart when the second tremor strikes as predicted. They warn the mayor (John Randolph), who calls out the National Guard, but when the big quake does finally arrive, it’s worse than anyone could have imagined.

Their city in ruins, the main characters do what they can to survive, but how many of them will make it out alive?

Like all good disaster films, Earthquake boasts a star-studded cast (and keep an eye out for Walter Matthau, who has a cameo as a drunk sitting at a bar). But it’s in the destruction department including the scope of the carnage - that this movie truly shines. Whereas previous disaster flicks centered on a specific structure (Airport=plane; Poseidon Adventure=ship; Towering Inferno=skyscraper), Earthquake takes out an entire city! Buildings collapse, and a highway overpass buckles, causing vehicles (including a truck hauling cattle) to go over the side, crashing to the ground below. 

And, of course, there’s the dam, which was having problems well before the major quake arrived. Should the dam fail, most of L.A. will be underwater within minutes. Those buildings left standing after the quake have their dangers as well; the office where Stewart and Sam work has to be evacuated when a lethal gas seeps in through the air ducts. Each and every character is put in harm’s way at one point or another, and the threat of more tremors continues to keep everyone on their toes.

Earthquake does occasionally delve into serious topics, like accountability (early on, Stewart complains that high-rises in Los Angeles aren’t built to withstand a large quake) and how people react differently in a crisis (Lou helps the injured, while Jody, an officer in the National Guard, uses his temporary power to get revenge on some guys who insulted him). For the most part, though, Earthquake is good, solid fun, providing its share of chills and thrills as it convincingly levels a major city.

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