In keeping with the method of isolating one or two scenes of a film with an eye towards meaningful dissection, I would like to see what the old disaster flick Airport can tell us about a particular concept that psychologists call “companionate love”. Obviously this means that I am not herein concerned with “disaster movie” nonsense or Grand Hotel type characterizations.
Please allow me to paraphrase John W. Santrock’s paraphrase of the famous Triangular theory of love as presented by the eminent psychologist Robert J. Sternberg:
“A relationship marked by intimacy and commitment but low
or lacking in passion is ‘companionate love’, a pattern often found in
couples who have been married for many years.”
I’m interested in the scenes in Airport that involve D.O. Guerrero and his wife Inez, played respectively by Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton (Stapleton’s performance, at least up until her character has to interact with others in the ensemble cast, is absolutely gut twisting – it is one of the greatest in the history of American films, in my humble opinion.)
Let’s be clear – this film is intended solely as entertainment, not art. Nobody supposes that George Seaton, in directing and adapting the screenplay from Arthur Hailey’s novel, had the conscious thought, “Hmmm, let’s see what we can say about companionate love in this picture.” Of course not. (Although I will point out that other kinds of love that psychologists often classify are myriad in the film, in the relationships for example between Bakersfeld and his wife, Demarest and his wife, Demarest and Gwen, and Patroni and his wife.) Yet these scenes function as a great example of the enormous power of the cinema to communicate abstract ideas, particularly ones that, once applied to practical existence, greatly touch our emotions.
And, if I may add, in these scenes every aspect of filmmaking is a participant – acting, directing, the set decorations, the art direction, the music, the essentially still camera, the minimalism of the dialogue – all of it.
I can’t say enough about the work of the set decorators – Jack D.Moore and Mickey S. Michaels, and the art directors, Alexander Golitzen and F. Preston Ames, in constructing the destitute, poverty stricken atmosphere of the Guerrero apartment and the desperate air of the café where Inez works. We first meet D.O. Guerrero about thirty five minutes into the picture, at a pay phone that turns out to be in the hallway of the building where he lives. At first we’re thinking, in addition to who’s this guy, where is he? It’s obviously not anywhere in the airport, where most of the scenes have taken place thus far – although there have been a few shots in other places, all of them nice looking and very pleasantly presented to us – the Bakersfeld home, Bakersfeld’s father in law’s club, a banquet hall, the Patroni home, Gwen’s apartment, and the dining room of one of the homes that’s too close to Runway 22. Let me say again – all these other locales have been quite attractive, so our radar immediately goes up when we encounter the shocking gray-brown shabbiness of the Guerrero apartment. Wherefore this squalor?
He’s been on the phone with the airline, confirming that the flight to Rome is still on schedule. (As an aside – this is one of the few phone conversations in the film that Seaton chooses not to show as a split screen – I’ve included a visual appendix at the end of this article to document this.) He hangs up and goes into his apartment. Already there are so many questions – he doesn’t have a phone in his apartment? What kind of place is he living in? What is he doing going to Rome? Why is the apartment so run down looking? As he moves into the bedroom and we see the bomb paraphernalia on the bed we begin to understand his connection to, and his part in, the larger story – especially as he tests the bomb’s rigging in the attaché case a couple of times and the ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, it helps us understand the magnitude of the lies he is telling his wife.
Next we see him trudging through the snowstorm to the modest coffee shop where his wife works. Again, the set and the art direction are sensational, right down to the OCCUPANCY BY MORE THAN 53 PERSONS… sign.
As they sit for a moment and talk the level of his deception – known to us but not to her – makes us feel deeply for her because she obviously feels so deeply for him. We know he plans to board a flight to Rome and detonate a bomb, but she thinks he’s going off to start a new job in Milwaukee. Through the short, terse expository dialogue we piece together the details of their life together. He works in something like excavation and demolition and is apparently unable to keep a job because of his temper – he keeps getting into arguments with his bosses. They’ve descended into bankruptcy and beyond – abject poverty, apparently – to the degree that he’s pawned everything but her mother’s ring, which she warns him not to do.
Her simple, innocent faith – her companionate love – for him is so sincere and true that she doesn’t even ask for any kind of confirmation or proof of the new job, even when he makes the outrageous statement “I can draw an advance on my salary tomorrow.” What? Really? On the first day of a brand new job, you need an advance on your salary? That’s not a red flag in your new employer’s face?
Let’s eavesdrop on some of her comments in this conversation.
“This isn’t going to be another one of these hello-goodbye jobs, is it?”
“This time do me one favor – if your boss says two and two is six, agree with him.”
“Don’t lose your temper.”
“Nothing’s the way it used to be. I’m not complaining… Better or for worse, I meant what I said.”
After he floats off into some hopeless pipe dreaming she says: “Stop. Stop dreaming. Just hold on to the job.”
“I can give the landlord another hard luck story. Goodbye Dom.”
He leaves and eventually boards the plane; through a series of plot contrivances she comes to realize exactly what is going on and races off through the night in the horrible blizzard to try and stop him from boarding. As we follow this dazed journey of hers we come to sympathize with her totally, to be moved by her incredible devotion to a man who is by any rational estimation no good for her in any way. And at this point we still don’t even know all the sorry details about him that we eventually will, after Bakersfeld questions her.
Following her run through the airport, and then seeing her shocked face pressed against the glass at the gate as she watches the plane go, it’s hard not to be stirred by her not only companionate but also (we realize now) unconditional love. What a job of acting!