RogerBW's Blog

Zero Hour! 29 September 2021

1957 aviation disaster, dir. Hall Bartlett, Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell: IMDb / allmovie. Looks like you picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

Well, yes, Airplane! casts a long shadow back in time; so before rewatching that for Ribbon of Memes, I thought it would be a good idea to watch this. It has an interesting genesis, starting with a screenplay the previous year (by Arthur Hailey, a former RAF pilot) for the CBC teleplay Flight Into Danger; that seems now to be lost, which is doubly a shame since it starred a young James Doohan. But that play was a great success (so much so that Sydney Newman went to England to help make a version there, which seems to be why he got involved in British television at all, so maybe without this no Doctor Who either), and so Hailey rewrote and expanded it to make a feature film.

It's very earnest and humourless; that's in keeping with the subject matter and the period, but one can see why it lent itself to parody. It's also cheap: some initial segments of stock footage meant to depict a flight of Spitfires show several distinct models of aircraft, and you'd have thought footage of Spitfires would have been pretty readily available. Similarly, when the plane does land and the gear collapses, the shift from an actual DC-4 to a crude model sliding down the runway is very apparent. But there's a little daring here: nobody actually says the word "divorce" (the Code has a long arm), but it's clearly on the cards as Ellen takes the kid and walks out on Ted, even if it's averted by the end. And earnestness is the right style: this is a plausible if unlikely situation (as in, it's never actually happened, even before the current rules requiring flight crews not to eat the same meals as each other), and a real problem in the days before autoland when even ILS transmitters didn't let you make a zero-visibility approach.

Mind you, the autopilot in a DC-4 doesn't have any control authority over the throttles.

Dana Andrews' career was definitely on its downslope by this point, and he's fourteen years older than his co-star, but he gets the job done as a man who's essentially unsocialised in the matter of talking about feelings, whose only idea of mental health is that if you have a problem you should quietly get over it and if that doesn't work you're a bad person and a failure. (All right, I'm applying some modern sensibility, but I think it's a valid reading.) Linda Darnell starts off well, showing Ellen reluctantly admitting to herself that there's simply no point in giving Ted another last chance to sort himself out because that'll just mean another trip round the cycle and ending up here again in a few months' time, though by the end she's mostly there to sit and look adoringly luminous in what I think of as a very 1940s style. (This was the last of her film roles released during her lifetime; nobody wants an actress when she's over thirty.)

The stewardess is played by the singer Peggy King in one of her few film roles; she apparently also released a single "Zero Hour". But it's a relatively small cast: this is basically Ted's story, and while a few other people get cameos it isn't one of those films (like The High and the Mighty) where everyone has their problem and is going to resolve it by the end.

Captain Treleaven, the old war buddy who has to try to talk Ted Stryker down, is played by Sterling Hayden, and for me one of the hardest transitions was not seeing him as General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove; contrast his later role as Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye, a non-military part, where he seems like a completely different person.

In the end it's a bit melodramatic, and Ted himself is something of a stuffed shirt, but it does its thing in a neat 81 minutes without wasted moments or self-indulgence. It's competent filmmakers doing their jobs and not trying to make a monument for the ages. There's a lot worse out there.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
The High and the Mighty

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