We open in the skies above Salt Lake City, Utah, where Harry “Smilin’ Jack” Walker skillfully zips around in the KBEX news helicopter, scouting the clogged turnpikes and thoroughfares, before calling in the eye-in-the-sky afternoon rush-hour traffic report. And, turns out, Walker (Janssen) will play an integral part in the radio station’s pending throwback weekend, where they’ll be playing nothing but big band standards in tribute to the 1940s and World War II. And part of this nostalgic promotion will include showcasing Walker’s own P-40 Warhawk that he flew as part of the American Volunteer Group in China, better known as the Flying Tigers.
And as the opening credits roll, the music takes Walker back to his combat days via a flashback, courtesy of footage from David Miller’s The Flying Tigers (1942); and when they wrap, we cut to a highway, where Walker is now causing his own traffic jam with his wide load as he slowly tows the plane to the station.
Responding to all the complaints by furious motorists, Captain Jim McAndrew (Meeker), who flew in the same squadron as Walker, asks to see if his old friend has the proper permit to parade the plane around, which he does. (And judging by the number of Japanese flags on the fuselage, Walker was a Flying Ace.) Here, we also find out that Smilin’ Jack doesn’t really have a whole lot to smile about anymore. Feeling as antiquated as his plane, the only time Walker feels alive is when he’s either reminiscing about his glory days as a fighter pilot or in the air flying by the seat of his pants -- unlike his cop friend, who is now off the streets and ensconced behind a dispatcher’s desk. And as the two continue to trade barbs and reminisce about their time in the service nearly 30 years ago, McAndrew encourages his friend to start acting his age, let go of the past and start living in the present.
Meanwhile, two men stealthily break into a National Guard Armory and abscond with some heavy duty weapons, including a crate of grenades. And these they use later in a brazen daylight bank robbery, absconding with over $200,000 in cash and a female hostage, and flee the scene in a getaway car, leaving several dead guards behind them. Up in the air, Walker hears about the robbery over the scanner and takes up a pursuit, radioing in their location, description of the car, the license plate, and confirms the presence of a hostage to McAndrew.
And when I say he follows them, I mean he FOLLOWS follows them, keeping the chopper perilously low, flying under underpasses, hugging the street, and taking tight corners around several buildings and does everything except land on them to keep a tab on these fleeing felons.
In constant contact with McAndrew as he directs the pursuit, Walker is filled in on who he is pursuing: two former combat Marines, recently discharged after several tours in Vietnam, who know how to use those weapons they stole; and they’ve also identified the hostage as one of the bank tellers, Teresa Jane Shaw (Heilveil), who, on top of everything else, is due to be married in two days. And then this white-knuckle chase apparently comes to an end when the crooks duck into a parking garage, seemingly trapping themselves. But upon reaching the roof, turns out they have their own helicopter waiting for them.
And while one of the robbers is shot and killed during the vehicle transfer, the hostage is used as shield to get everyone else on board safely. The getaway pilot then guns it for the city limits and the desert and mountains beyond, where there are plenty of places to hide, with the now highly expendable hostage’s only hope of rescue being Walker, who is still hot on their tail but is running dangerously low on gas...
Born in Naponee, Nebraska, David Janssen’s family moved to California and settled in Hollywood, where their teenage son soon developed an interest in acting. Signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox when he was just 18 he made his film debut in It’s a Pleasure (1945). But the studio quickly dropped him after becoming “disenchanted with his odd hairline and big prominent ears.” And though he never really stuck as a leading man on the big screen, the actor showed up in nearly 32 films over the next decade in supporting roles until he found his true niche as a leading man on the small screen, whether as detective Richard Diamond, the fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble, Treasury agent Jim O’Hara, or the grizzled Harry “Harry-O” Orwell.
And in between those TV series he still appeared in dozens of feature films, earning himself the reputation as one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood. “I have always considered myself basically unemployed,” said Janssen. “I’m from Nebraska and I feel guilty when I’m not working.” And sticking with that theme, the actor would go on to appear in over 20 Made for TV movies between 1970 and his untimely death in 1980. In 1973 alone he starred in the true crime drama, The Longest Night (1973), the supernatural Moon of the Wolf (1973), and Birds of Prey (1973), where the veteran pilot did a lot of his own flying.
While watching this telefilm one easily gets a Vanishing Point (1970) vibe emanating off it with the ‘man out of time’ protagonist, both literally and existentially, who has no place in this modern world, which, alas, is also a big clue on how this thing is destined to end. Janssen does a pretty good job of elevating the script’s rote notions of a flyer in search of that certain buzz he only got while in combat. He also has good chemistry with Elayne Heilveil, an unjustly unsung presence from the 1970s TV era with a familiar face but a name you can never quite place, after the bank teller makes her escape with the money when the robbers stop to refuel, leading to a harrowing chase between the two factions, with the opposing helicopters hovering like birds of prey fighting over a frightened field mouse in the kicked up dust.
With the faster and more maneuverable vehicle, Walker is able to rescue Teresa and they manage to give their pursuers the slip, landing in a narrow canyon, where they wait out the night as the pilot tries to repair a damaged hydraulic line that was shot up during their escape. And as the night progresses and the two bond over a love for old movies, Teresa, succumbing to Dudley Do-Right Syndrome, soon becomes infatuated with her rescuer as they discuss her doubts over her impending marriage; and then, what started as a general flirtation is about to turn into a full romantic bloom before Walker, seeing where this going, roughly cuts it off for the woman’s own good. And so, the following morning, after he radios his location and where he’s heading to McAndrew, he leaves Teresa behind with directions to the safety of a nearby highway while he draws off the bad guys for a final showdown at an abandoned Air Force base.
Like Janssen, Birds of Prey director William Graham started in features but made the most hay directing for the small screen, where his efforts ranged from the gawdawful Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975) to the intense and mesmerizing Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). This telefilm was also the debut of screenwriter Robert Boris, who also had another script in production at the same time, Electra Glide in Blue (1973), which has some stark parallels with Birds of Prey. Boris was also responsible for Izzy and Moe (1985), the one project that was capable of getting Art Carney and Jackie Gleason back together again after their long standing feud. And while all their efforts were nothing to sneeze at, the true star of Birds of Prey was probably stunt pilot James Gavin.
“Birds of Prey was a ground-breaking project,' said Gavin. “We took the helicopter out of its normal environment [and] put it in the city streets.” The stunt flying is definitely pretty amazing in this telefilm and worth a watch alone. There’s one scenario where Teresa makes her escape and is pursued on foot by one of the robbers and Walker runs interference for her, eventually clobbering the bad guy with the landing skid on the helicopter. All of this was done in camera without the benefit of a cutaway. (And it looks like the rail really nailed him so if this was by design or accident, who can say for sure.)
And this is not the only situation where the choppers appear to be dangerously close to the action. And then things really get nuts during the climax at the abandoned base, where the chase required both vehicles to zip in out of several hangars. And then the penultimate climax called for both choppers to hover and circle each other inside the same building. Before shooting the scene, there was some speculation among the crew that the downdraft generated by one helicopter might be enough to flip the other one over.
Thankfully, the stunt was pulled off without incident. And while there were no other mishaps, it’s kind of hard to watch Birds of Prey at times with the looming specter of the tragic accident that occurred while filming The Twilight Zone (1983) movie a decade later, where Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a helicopter stunt got grossly and negligently out of hand, which resulted in a ton of new safety regulations for such things, which is why, for better or for worse, we’re unlikely to see anything like Birds of Prey again any time soon -- if ever.
Birds of Prey (1973) Tomorrow Entertainment Inc. :: CBS Television Network / EP: Roger Gimbel / P: Alan A. Armer / D: William A. Graham / W: Robert Boris, Rupert Hitzig / C: Jordan Cronenweth / E: Jim Benson / M: Jack Elliott, Allyn Ferguson / S: David Janssen, Ralph Meeker, Elayne Heilveil, Don Wilbanks