In Which We Get Real Topical with a Look at “Heatwave!” (1974)

As some of you know, I am a huge aficionado of the disaster movies of the 1970s (we have a whole section devoted to the genre), and well, this one seemed rather timely, wot?

Heatwave! (1974) also seemed timely when it debuted, for we in the Northeast had experienced a major 5-day heat wave in July 1972, followed by a lesser one in September 1973. I recall temperatures topping out at 105 degrees, and my parents thoughtfully tending us throughout, making sure we were hydrated and comfortable. These were the days before near-universal air conditioning. There was nothing to do but lie there and take it. Nearly 900 people died in the ’72 one.

Thus, like many a made-for-TV movie Heatwave! was “topical”, or at least was pegged to a recent event. I recall watching it when it premiered, with those recent hot spells very much in mind. And this telefilm arrived when disaster was “in”, the same year as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Heatwave! was the first of numerous disaster films to be helmed by Jerry Jameson, who also directed Hurricane (1974), Terror on the 40th Floor (1974), The Elevator (1974), Airport ’77, A Fire in the Sky (1980), Fire and Rain (1989) and the related Raise the Titanic (1980). Jameson was a prolific TV director who also specialized in westerns, suspense thrillers and the like. Some of his other credits include the Charles Whitman true crime flick The Deadly Tower (1975), a 1976 version of The Call of the Wild, and — wait for it — High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane (1980).

a”If this disaster doesn’t end soon, I’m gong to need a change of clothes!”

Heatwave! starts out in Los Angeles, toward the end of the second week of a massive fictional heat wave with temperatures upwards of 120 degrees, compounded by a blackout and lawlessness. To my mind, the best tack to take with such a scenario is to remain in the city as all the systems of civilization break down, a la Earthquake. I imagine that would be an expensive movie, however. So the solution the producers arrived at was to have the two protagonists (Ben Murphy of Alias Smith and Jones and Bonnie Bedelia of Die Hard) trek to their mountain cabin where ostensibly it will be cooler. This premise is one of several fatal holes in this highly imperfect movie: I can’t bring myself to root for heroes who are too stupid. Bedelia’s character is nine months pregnant. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a woman so very dumb that she would drive far away from all the doctors, nurses, midwives, hospitals, and neighbors when she is expecting a baby any minute during a highly stressful time of crisis. But that is what the young couple does. On the way, their car gets stolen. (More context: recall the year. 1974 was an era of both high crime and a gas crisis. So it was also very au courant to depict people behaving like animals, looting, stealing scarce resources, and so forth. There’s a lot of that, and complaining about it, in this movie.)

At any rate, after a very long hike, the pair finally get to the small town that is near their cabin, and rapidly realize that conditions there are even worse than they are in the city. It’s just as hot, there’s no electricity, food and water are scarce, and apart from an old country doctor (Lew Ayres–Dr. Kildare, not bad!), there’s no one around to help. The most hilarious part of the film is David Huddleston as a selfish, well-heeled traveling salesman in a Cadillac. Huddleston likes to drink lots of cold beer to “beat the heat”. In what may be the film’s largest single plot hole, he decides to blow town in his Caddy, repeatedly refusing the couple’s pleas to share some gas to help fuel their generator-driven homemade incubator for their newborn baby. (I don’t quite understand–don’t incubators keep babies WARM? That would hardly seem to be a problem at this particular moment, I shouldn’t think). But that’s not even what I’m talking about. Instead of begging for gas so they can stay in this remote and dangerous wilderness location, why don’t they just ask him for a LIFT BACK TO THE CITY, which won’t even cost him anything since he’s going there anyway??? Gee, my initial impression was right — these characters are really dumb!

The biggest hole of all, though, I have to say, is the premise itself. Unlike, say, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, or tsunamis, there is no visual component to a heat wave. The dangerous threat to health and safety is the AIR. It is invisible. All you can do to illustrate what’s happening is occasionally cut to a reddish-orange sun in the sky, throw in that wavy mirage visual effect from time to time, and then show everyone sweating, fanning themselves, and saying things like “Whew! I sure could use a glass of cool water!” Hell, they do that on Perry Mason! And if it comes to that, at the moment, people are doing that at my house! Also, visible or not, death by heat stroke or exhaustion is a slow, untheatrical process, somewhat less dramatic than having an asteroid fall on your head. It is LITERALLY only slightly more dramatic than watching paint dry. Not to downplay the tragedy of such things in real life. I am just pointing out that in a motion picture, it is not CINEMATIC.

“Hey! Leave a little sewage for ME!”

We’ve discussed three big holes in the story — the end of the picture contains a fourth. The deus ex machina is that it starts to rain, presumably signalling an end to the water shortage as well as an end to the heat wave, but think about it: that’s by no means a given in either case. It’s just their way of wrapping up the movie.

So, you have two good reasons not to watch Heatwave!: it’s one of the dullest of disaster movies, and it’s too much like the misery most of the country is experiencing at the moment anyway. I mean, just look out the window, if you wanna watch Heatwave! But if you’re like me, you watch old TV movies like this for nostalgia, and there’s plenty of that here: the faces of familiar character actors, the news of the day from 50 years ago, stuff like that. It’s available on youtube at present. It’s as free as the water, as free as the air!