Amusement park rides, particularly rollercoasters, operate under an unspoken assumption of safety that’s not unlike that of film going. As they buy the ticket, sit in the seat and have that safety bar drop over their laps, customers can feel confident that although they may experience thrills and maybe even terror, they will never be in real danger and when the ride stops, they will walk away intact, if perhaps a bit nauseous. But what if someone decided to violate that tenet? What if someone used that moment of total vulnerability to strike and the illusion of danger became real?
Then there are the coasters themselves. Filmed using camera mounts that put us in the front car and tuned up acoustically for the Sensurround format (more on that later), each roller coaster gets exhibited in vertigo-inducing shots that are still effective when viewed on television. I can only imagine how they must have looked on a big screen or how they could have benefitted from IMAX photography. There’s also an excellent use of sound to keep us off-guard, such as during a tensely quiet scene of bomb squad personnel gingerly attempting to disarm one of Bottoms’ explosives that is interrupted by a jarring cut to an extremely loud ringing phone.
For a contrast, there’s our much put-upon hero. From his first scene, in which he receives repeated electric shocks as part of aversion therapy to quit smoking, Calder seems to take a lot of abuse and harassment, responding with a sense of resigned, caustic humor that can’t help but make us empathize with him. Watching him get pushed around by his boss (Henry Fonda) or awkwardly greet his ex-wife’s current boyfriend (who's wearing Harry’s robe) makes it that much more satisfying to see Harry assert himself by pushing his way into the investigation or matching the bomber’s serene menace with snarky annoyance over the telephone. Even without sharing much screen time together, Segal and Bottoms develop a great chemistry, foreshadowing the long-distance antagonism of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard film or Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich from In the Line of Fire.
Gruff FBI agent Hoyt is a pleasant change from the stock law enforcement foils we've grown accustomed to. How many films have we seen where authority figures such as cops or feds are depicted as ludicrously stubborn or wildly short-sighted, serving no purpose but to enhance the hero’s better qualities by getting in the way? Even as great a film as Die Hard falls into this trap with Paul Gleason’s priggish deputy chief. In contrast, Hoyt is always presented as a sensible, competent investigator. From the moment he enters the film, he is following up clues and considering avenues of investigation. As much as he patronizes and is annoyed by Calder, we see he recognizes the value of his input. This is illustrated by a nice little moment in which, after angrily dismissing one of Harry’s theories, Hoyt changes to an almost conciliatory tone and urges Calder to keep passing on any other ideas he might get.
There are some more familiar faces in the supporting cast, including character actor Harry Guardino, a bit underused as a detective on the case, and Susan Strasberg as Harry’s extremely patient girlfriend. There are also notable early appearances by Craig Wasson as a stoned park patron, Steve Guttenberg as an FBI agent and Helen Hunt in her debut as Calder’s daughter. It’s strange to say it but one of the few sour spots of casting is Henry Fonda. Though featured heavily in the film’s promotion, his role as Calder’s disapproving boss is little more than a cameo in two brief throwaway scenes. Having an actor of his caliber in such a minor role is somewhat distracting and he never even gets a scene with Widmark, a frequent co-star of his following Madigan and The Swarm.