Monday, March 16, 2020

David Janssen in Birds of Prey

The KBEX traffc helicopter.
One of the first "water cooler" movies I can remember is the 1973 CBS telepic Birds of Prey. I'm not sure if the term "water cooler" had even been invented in regard to a movie everyone was talking about the next day. But regardless, many of the students in my high school--particularly the guys--were discussing this unusual made-for-TV action film on the morning following its broadcast.

David Janssen stars as Harry Walker, a former combat pilot who flies the traffic helicopter for radio station KBEX in Salt Lake City. During his daily flyover routine, he spots a bank robbery and reports it to police. When the culprits duck into a parking garage, Harry assumes that they will be captured, their hostage freed. and the $203,500 recovered. So, he is understandably surprised when a helicopter lands on the garage's roof and whisks away the bad guys. Without hesitation, Harry takes off in pursuit in his chopper.

David Janssen as pilot Harry Walker.
Except for a talkative interlude at its midpoint, Birds of Prey is a non-stop chase film featuring impressive aerial footage of its two helicopters. Like other well-done chase pictures, such as Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey, dialogue is kept to a minimum.

However, it's that dialogue-filled interlude that gives Birds of Prey its heft. When Harry picks up the robbers' hostage, a bank employee named T.J. (for Teresa Janice), their situation forces two very different people to share close quarters. T.J. is a naive 22-year-old who plans to get married in a few days. Harry is a middle-aged man with multiple ex-wives and a lonely future. For him, the chase is a reminder of times gone by--when he was a pilot during the war. For T.J., the entire situation, to include Harry, is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. These two people talk, flirt, kiss briefly (three times), and part from one another on Harry's insistence.

Elayne Heilveil as T.J.
David Janssen doesn't have to stretch much to play Harry; he specialized in playing world-weary figures with a quiet charm and an inner strength. Still, it's one of his best post-Fugitive performances, especially coming on the heels of his dull O'Hara, U.S. Treasury TV series (1971-72). As T.J., Elayne Heilveil gives an incredibly natural performance, which had me wondering why I'd never heard of her. Her filmography includes just thirty acting credits, though she appeared multiple times on the TV series Family and Beauty and the Beast.

Much of the background music consists of big band standards like "Moonlight Serenade" and "I'll Get By." Due to copyright issues, most prints of Birds of Prey include different music. You can tell if you watching a print with the original score by noting whether you can hear Janssen singing to the opening song or not.

Birds of Prey is not a made-for-television classic, but it's still an absorbing action film that also works as a character study. Be forewarned that the closing scene is a shocker!


  1. Seems like the piece indicates someone older - considering the '40's standards. Produced by Alan AAA Armer. The Fuge's producer for its first three years.

  2. I quite enjoyed this film when I got to see it a few years back. Found it quite satsifying. I was watching it for Ralph Meeker, LOL, but as I absolutely love helicopters, this movie ended up being right up my alley. Loved the flight chases and aerial footage especially.

    1. I wish there was a really good print of it, but I haven't found one.

  3. I saw and enjoyed the original broadcast, remembering this line from the Janssen-Meeker interaction: "Remember when we used to make simultaneous approaches to intersecting runways?"

  4. Ooh – I love an ending that you don't see coming. This film sounds like a real treat.

  5. It is very awesome movie to watch.