Director Ralph Nelson takes control of the helms here in this quasi-disaster flick which is both ahead of its time in storytelling but also very dated at times. Nelson is one of those hidden gems of a director you stumble across every so often. He was never pigeon-holed into one specific type of movie and ended up directing films across countless genres. Action, western, drama, comedy, message movies, he tried them all and did them all well. Never flashy but always getting the job done in above average fashion, Nelson doesn't have a true classic to his name, but his filmography is nonetheless littered with worthwhile movies.
On a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, veteran pilot Capt. Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) and his crew run into mechanical problems and are forced to crash land on a beach, the jet airliner exploding on contact with a pier running across the beach. Everyone on board other than one stewardess (Suzanne Pleshette) is killed, and the public, the corporation, and the media want answers. What happened that caused Savage to attempt such a difficult maneuver? All evidence points to pilot error being the cause, but airline executive, former pilot and friend of Savage's, Sam McBane (Glenn Ford), thinks something else happened. Time is running out though, and McBane must prove Savage's innocence before a board of inquiry pins the blame on the deceased pilot.
Wasting little time surprising the viewer, Nelson kills off star Rod Taylor before the credits even roll. Just when you think Taylor's Savage has successfully landed his jet airliner carrying 49 passengers...BOOM! The plane explodes, and 'Fate is the Hunter' pops up on the screen. Talk about a tone-setter. No worries though for Taylor fans, this is not the last we'll see of him. His involvement in the movie from there on in besides his character being constantly talked about is through flashbacks that flesh him out as an individual. It's those little bits of character that should help us decide if this experienced, always calm and capable pilot was really incapable of dealing with what seemed like a minor mechanical issue. Long story short, don't miss the first 10 minutes, or you'll be lost.
The problem any movie faces when it has such a strong start is sustaining that energy over the length of the movie. That's where 'Hunter' struggles. The investigation is interesting enough because it's hard not to be curious about what actually caused the plane to malfunction in such a surprising way. But Ford's questioning gets tedious quickly. The flashbacks are beyond tedious and serve only to make Savage more of a 3-D character. After the first flashback, it becomes too much. We get it. He's a good pilot who is cocky, arrogant, not always likable and quite the ladies man. But is a movie really going to peg Taylor as a boozehound who caused the deaths of over 50 people? I think not. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of how Taylor didn't crash the plane because he was drunk.
Worse than that though (as a Lost fan I can appreciate even the slowest of flashbacks) is the direction Ford's character and the story takes overall in the final half hour. Now granted, the word 'Fate' is in the movie's title. As the evidence comes together and Ford's McBane talks to all these possible witnesses, he begins to question if maybe, just maybe, fate played a role in that plane crashing. An out of season bird may have flown into the engine, three other planes were all off-schedule by a few minutes, the pier was supposed to have been removed a week earlier, it just doesn't add up. Was something else at play here? Ford's testimony is even worse when he admits all this. I can't tell if it is just all too sappy or handled poorly, but if Nelson was trying to deliver a message with this change in direction it didn't work. I haven't read the source novel to know one way or another, but the ending disappoints on a lot of levels.
The redeeming factor through all the negatives is the impressive cast assembled here. Ford is never flashy but is as reliable as always with Taylor making the most of his posthumous part...in character at least. Pleshette has a small but integral part (and looks great by the way). Also look for Nancy Kwan, Constance Towers, Jane Russell in a cameo as herself in 1945, Nehemiah Persoff, an uncredited Dorothy Malone, Max Showalter, Wally Cox and many more recognizable faces even if you don't know their name. Other than the cast and some nice-looking black and white camerawork, I struggled to get through this movie. Potentially good but never amounts to anything much.
Fate is the Hunter <---trailer (1964): **/****