Murder On Flight 502

Director: George McCowan   
Robert Stack, Hugh O'Brian, Fernando Lamas

With a title like what you just read a few seconds ago, you have probably guessed that the '70s made for TV movie I am reviewing for this roundtable takes place on a jet airliner. And you would be right. You might be asking why I decided to review this particular made for TV movie. Well, as it so happens, around the time that us B-Masters decided we would review '70s made for TV movies for a roundtable, I happened to be sent this movie on DVD from the online DVD rental service I'm a member of - I had actually requested it months earlier and forgotten about it. Another reason why I decided I would review Murder On Flight 502 was that I had seen it as a child, and remembering what I thought of it as a child I wanted to see if I would react in the same way to it as an adult. When I saw it as a child, the idea of jet airliners and flight in general still seemed magical to me. You see, everyone in my family up to that point had been on an airplane at least once, but not me. To me, soaring high in the sky seemed like freedom and power to me, and I wanted to have a taste of both of those things. Several years after seeing the movie, I finally got my first taste of flight. I can remember how excited I felt entering the airport, moving through security, and finally boarding the plane and, to my excitement, getting a window seat. I remember my excitement building when the plane started taxiing down the runway, and starting to go faster and faster. You can imagine how I felt - both excited and, I must admit, a little scared - when we finally lifted up and the ground started to get further and further from my window.

My building fear on that flight soon afterwards started to fade away - and, I must point out, my excitement as well. Soon the airplane flew above the clouds, and I could not see the ground below anymore. All I could see passing below was a never-ending field of white. The feeling I was starting to get now was the same kind I felt from being in a bus. It didn't take very long for me to conclude that flight - at least the kind that most people experience - was simply a boring affair, and that there was nothing magical about it. Further experiences with flight later in my life did nothing to change the conclusion I got that day. When I was taking a flight to Korea for my English-teaching job, for example, I had the misfortune of being right in front of two hyperactive children who wouldn't shut up and kept kicking the back of my seat. So as you can see, after incidents like this I have a much different view of flight now than what I did when I first saw Murder On Flight 502. It's not as magical now. In part because of all that, over those same years I have built a belief that very bad things can happen surrounding flight, enough so that today I can better believe the premise of the movie, and that premise is crime. In fact, I had a close call involving crime on an airplane - at least I think I did. When I was returning from Korea after completing my year-long teaching contract, on my person I was carrying something secret on my person that I did not declare to customs. No, it wasn't drugs, gems, or weapons - in fact, I am not even sure if what I had on me was illegal. But I smuggled that something through customs, and now that the statute of limitations expired years ago, I am free to brag I beat customs.

That may sound like small potatoes to you, but trust me, when something like that personally happens to you, as a result you start to think of all the possible bad things - really bad things - that can happen during a flight. I wonder about possible hijackings whenever I take a flight nowadays, and Murder On Flight 502even remembering a ludicrous Hardy boys story I read as a child when the boys took on and overpowered a couple of hijackers while they were taking an overseas flight does little to comfort me. (By the way, one of those hijackers was so humiliated to have been overpowered by a couple of snot-nosed teenagers that he bit down on a cyanide capsule and killed himself - now that I could believe.) I even think about the possibility of murder on one of my flights; since there was a famous case in my country of someone being decapitated by a crazy man on a Greyhound bus, it stands to reason that murder could happen on an airplane. With such a cynical attitude built over the years about flight, I was more willing now to accept the premise of Murder On Flight 502 than I was in those innocent years when I first saw it. Murder seem to be the last thing on the movie's mind when it starts, however. This Aaron Spelling production starts off as a typical day at New York's Kennedy airport. We are introduced one by one to the people who are about to take a transatlantic flight to London, including the plane's captain (Stack) and chief stewardess (Farrah Fawcett). The plane takes off without a hitch, but several hours later, the airport's security chief (George Maharis) finds a note in the airport lounge, a note that was intended to be found the next day. It says, "By the time you receive this letter, you will already know about the murders on flight 502. If any innocent people are hurt, I'm sorry. If I die, I want it known that it was the only way."

Is the note a joke? No one is sure, though going through the passenger list the captain is reminded that there is a New York detective (High O'Brien) on board, so they have him to provide security. But with a title like Murder On Flight 502, you've probably guessed that there will be murder eventually despite this advanced warning and the presence of the detective. The detective has his hands full; there are a number of suspects on this flight that might have a motive for murder. The Garwoods (Hugh O'Brien and Laraine Day) seem to have a grudge against popular singer Jack Marshall (Sonny Bono), who happens to be on the same flight. German passenger Otto Gruenwaldt (Theodore Bikel) knows fellow passenger Dr. Kenyon Walker (Ralph Bellamy), but just what he knows is a secret. Even child passenger Millard Kensington (Danny Bonaduce) is a suspect, since he planted a smoke bomb in the very same lounge where the note was found. Other notable passengers on the flight are played by Walter Pidgeon, Polly Bergen, and Fernando Lamas, and they all seem to have their own dirty secrets, such as one of them fathering an awful B movie actor with the first name of Lorenzo. Despite all these and other characters on the airplane, I must mention it wasn't hard for me to figure out who the murderer was before the revelation towards the end. In fact, when I first saw this movie as a child, and when the character of the murderer first appeared on the screen not long after the movie started, I immediately said to myself, "That person is going to be the killer!"

I strongly suspect that if you sit down to watch Murder On Flight 502, that you too will guess who the murderer will turn out to be before the end, almost certainly guessing that fact when the individual turns up during the movie's first few minutes. But what about for the minority of remaining viewers who, for various reasons, don't see this? Will the remaining ninety five percent of the movie give them a good number of clues that will give them a reasonable chance of concluding who the killer is before it is actually revealed? Well, the answer is yes... and no. There are a few clues along the way surrounding the individual that some viewers paying close attention will put together and correctly conclude that the person is the killer. I say "some viewers", because the movie doesn't always play fair. There are a couple of scenes with this individual executing certain actions that seem to be only what a truly innocent person would do. (Some might claim the killer is not of a rational mind, but this individual didn't seem that warped even after being revealed.) But even with misleading actions like those, I am at least confident that even viewers who are hopeless at solving cinematic murder mysteries will be able to shave down their list of suspects almost entirely during the running time. That's because this movie has some of the most obvious red herrings I have seen in a movie. As I illustrated in the previous paragraphs, there are a number of suspects with BIG secrets, and everyone knows that when a character practically announces having such a secret, 99.9% of the time they turn out to be innocent at the end of the movie.

Another thing about these characters with their BIG secrets; not only do they seem to be there in a feeble attempt to throw off the viewers from the true culprit, they also seem to be there in order to pad out the running time. For example, Danny Bonaduce's character early on in the flight is brought to Stack and questioned about the smoke bomb and the note, the latter of which he denies he wrote. After this scene, except for one brief shot lasting no more than a second late in the movie, he is never seen or referred to again. Walter Pidgeon and Molly Picon get into several "cute" conversations that only elderly folks like themselves seem to have in movies. There is so much padding like this in the movie, that we have to wait until more than an hour of the running time has passed before the first murder actually happens. The '70s was the era of the 90 minute (including commercials) TV movie, unlike this one; had this movie been cut down to fit a 90 minute slot, I am sure it would have been a definite improvement. As you see, Murder On Flight 502 doesn't work as a mystery. But can it be appreciated as something else, say for any camp value? Sadly, overall it doesn't work on that level as well. Oh, the movie does have a few unintended laughs. Sonny Bono sings an hilariously awful song and actually says the line, "The beat goes on" at one point. The utter disregard for airport and airplane security is very dated, and the tacky production values (including one blatantly obvious boom mike shadow) are good for a few giggles. But moments like those are isolated; the movie overall is just a slow trek with no surprises. Aaron Spelling went on to better things, and I suggest you reshelf this movie and do the same.

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See also: Brigham City, Dr. Cook's Garden, Evil Roy Slade