Wings of Danger (1952)

Zachary Scott stars in this British aviation mystery directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer Studios. It was based on the 1951 book Dead on Course by ‘Mansell Black’, a name used here by journalist Packham Webb and prolific novelist Elleston Trevor. Throughout the Second World War Trevor served as a flight engineer with the Royal Air Force and this was just one of several airborne thrillers he wrote over the decades, the best remembered of which almost certainly remains The Flight of the Phoenix. Scott plays Richard Van Ness, a pilot working for a small outfit transporting cargo from the UK mainland to the Channel Islands. One dark and stormy night he loses one of his best pilots and gets tangled up with smugglers and a dotty femme fatale …

This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the other selected titles.

“That’s the way Nick liked them – blonde and plentiful. Nick had most things women lose sleep about: he was a natural and knew it and liked it and I guess had a good time. He was the sort of guy you couldn’t stay mad at too long, no matter what he said or what he did. And brother, Nick did plenty.”

This narration is spoken by ‘Van’ (as Scott’s character is known throughout) and is heard as Nick (second-billed Robert Beatty) pulls himself out of a car with three women in it. This  opening sets up the main dynamic as Van spends most of the movie in the shadow of Nick. Indeed there is initially a slightly jarring subtext here, a kind of repressed jealousy at work though this is never really explored (something of a recurring failing as we shall see). Not only is Van engaged to the Nick’s sister but is also cowed by the fact that he knows his secret: Van had a bad accident during the war and occasionally blacks out, something he has told nobody about. A bit irresponsible really for a pilot, but Van rationalises this by saying that as he doesn’t transport passengers he figures that makes it OK. Let’s just hope he doesn’t crash on any one … Rather oddly, though not uniquely, the opening narration is a device introduced to seemingly put a past tense frame on the story but is then dropped for the remainder. Instead it just sets up a slightly world-weary tone to suit the Noir atmosphere in which we are presented with the jaded worldview of a returning war veteran scarred by his battle experiences. It is however also typical of the slightly clunky and verbose script by John Gilling, later a Hammer regular as writer and director.

That night despite the bad weather report Nick insists on flying over Van’s protestations. Ultimately Nick threatens to spill the beans about Van’s blackouts if he doesn’t let him go. Nick goes, the weather is even worse than predicted and the plane goes missing. The next day Van flies over to see if Nick somehow managed to survive. Eventually some wreckage is found but Nick is apparently gone for good, devastating his sister Avril (Naomi Chance) and his father, both of whom idolised him. It emerges though that Nick, as we suspected, was a bit of a naughty boy and was suspected by the police of being involved in a smuggling ring. They even suspect that Van may have been involved, so he has to try and clear up the mystery. Who were Nick’s partners? The likely candidates include Snell (Harold Lang, perfectly cast), a smirking Aryan type who seems to have some sort of hold over Avril; and Boyd Spencer, Van and Nick’s slimy boss, who doesn’t seem that concerned over the death of his pilot but only the loss of the plane and the cargo it was carrying.

Van investigates partly to clear himself partly but mostly out of a sense of obligation to Nick’s family, though he soon realises that the odds are that what he will find will probably blacken his friend’s reputation. But there is always the hope that he isn’t actually dead as his body has not been recovered.  Snell has been blackmailing Avril and, after Van smacks him around a little, admits that he knew that Nick was involved in illegal smuggling with Boyd. Van decides to get close to Boyd’s upper-class mistress, Alexia LaRoche. Kay Kendall is somewhat miscast as the glamorous femme fatale, permanently draped in furs, beautifully coiffed but giving no scope for the actress’ trademark eccentricity (Fisher used her to much better effect in Mantrap shortly afterwards). Instead she gets to play the temptress and is even given a sympathetic backstory as she tries to get Van involved in her and Boyd’s counterfeiting ring, or maybe to double-cross her lover and take his place in business and in her bed. Somehow Scott manages to resist, which is odd because even though Kendall may not be right in the role she is certainly much more dynamic, appealing and fun that the deep-voiced Naomi Chance, who as Avril makes for a very insipid heroine indeed, seemingly wading through treacle to deliver each line as through a narcoleptic haze.

As the narrative develops it more and more closely comes to resemble a low-budget version of The Third Man, especially after it emerges that the charismatic Nick was not only involved in smuggling but has in fact faked his own death. As Beatty was second-billed this comes as not much of a surprise and it is just as well that he is excellent as the anti-hero (or semi-villain of you will). The discovery of Nick’s criminal activities brings disillusionment to most of his friends, especially Van, though Avril as usual meets the news with a muted response verging on catatonia. Ultimately this then becomes a story of Nick’s attempts to rehabilitate his bad boy image and Van’s smashing of the smugglers. But really, what is Van’s motivation here? Why not just go to the police and be done with it – why protect Nick as he clearly doesn’t deserve it? And how will this help cure his blackouts? It certainly won’t do much for his romance with Avril, which has stalled as he won’t commit as he believes his next attack may kill him – in effect he is behaving as if he were still at war. Again another fascinating subtext, one that recurs so often in Noir films of the time, but which is barely given the chance to register here.

It is a weakness in this film that while Scott is perfectly decent in the role it really is just a two-dimensional part, that recurring figure in aviation stories of a pilot haunted by a wartime trauma (sent up beautifully by Robert Hays in Airplane of course). Scott was often best as snide and slippery villains but here plays the hero completely straight. There is an attempt to give him a kind of Hemingway-esque heft and the conclusion of the film supports this with an oddly tragic tone as the hero seems hell-bent on self-destruction. This, while another cliché typical of the genre, could have worked and made his personal journey a compelling way in and out of a fairly run-of-the-mill smuggling story. But the character is seriously under-written and thus Scott is really severely hampered. There’s a fun climax in a villain’s lair inside a coastal ruin but sadly the low budget doesn’t allow for much and the film’s pair of airplane crashes both take place off-screen. Fisher’s handling of the material is pretty good actually and the prolonged climax is very nicely put together despite the clear restrictions – but the story is a bit weak and the characters too thin to really make on care very much. Shame really, this could have been much better.

Those interested in finding out more about Elleston Trevor and his books should check out Matthew R. Bradley’s Blog Bradley on Film which has several items on his relationship with the author as a publicist, friend and fan starting from this post).

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

DVD Availability: This title is available in decent if contrasty condition (taken from a video source rather than a print) as part of the impressive series of ‘Hammer Noir’ box sets released by VCI in a double bill with 36 Hours (aka Terror Street), also to be reviewed here soon. The ultra-typical Malcolm Arnold score (one of three he wrote for Hammer, the best of which was for Stolen Face) is featured in a YouTube video:

Wings of Danger (1952)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: John Gilling (from ‘Dead on Course’ by Elleston Trevor and Packham Webb)
Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey
Art Direction: Andrew Mazzei
Music: Malcolm Arnold (played by London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Cast:  Zachary Scott, Kay Kendall, Robert Beatty, Naomi Chance, Diane Cilento, Colin Tapley, Arthur Lane

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to Wings of Danger (1952)

  1. Sergio – I’ll confess to not having seen this one, so I can’t really comment intelligently. But just from your description I can see why you gave it the number of tips you did. Your excellent review (for which thanks) shows how important casting is when it comes to making a film memorable. Of course directors don’t always get the ‘dream cast’ and there’s not always agreement on who should play one or another role. But casting is pretty crucial…

    • Thanks Margot – I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it as this is a fairly obscure little British B-movie that is probably more interesting for the various elements of cast and crew than the actual film itself. I do liek Elleston Trevor and the director and the cast and so was drawn to it, but it does also point to the fact that air thrillers tend to all be made to a fairly rigid formula , either about crashing, hijacks, a mad bomber or a pilot suffering from some sort of trauma. This is definitely one of the latter!

  2. Colin says:

    A mid-range Hammer noir that I agree probably should have been better. Personally, I found it entertaining enough, just not all that memorable.

    I don’t think the casting was a major problem as much as the writing. If anything, the characterization was too thin and there’s maybe a bit too much story. I’ve been watching a fair few B movies of various types lately and I feel the more successful ones trim the fat off the story and build up the characters.

    • Hi Colin, yes, I think you’re being quite fair. There is something very strange and disconnected about the narrative, especially towards the end when Nick once again vanishes from the story and Van seems to forget about him. I like Fisher’s staging of the scenes in the latter part of the film but the resignation of Van’s character seems to come out of nowhere. Maybe somethign has been cut but as you say, I think it gets a bit turgid and bogged down by trying to cram too much in.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I have never heard of it either. The British made some lovely films back in the day though. Some of my favorites in fact. Moody, well acted, atmospheric and intelligent.

  4. I’m with Patti. The Brits made some very evocative films back in the day. It doesn’t sound like a Blu-ray version of this movie would help it.

    • Hi George – no, this one would not really be worth the effort though the upside would be that you could pack about 10 on a single Blu-ray and in standard fed they’d still look pretty darn good! Hammer made lots of terrific movie and they are starting to come out on Blu-ray. Quatermass and the Pit on Blu-ray is a beauty to behold and Curse of Frankenstein is due out in the UK shortly. Hammer now have their own YouTube channel …

  5. I don’t remember this film though I remember Zachary Scott from a couple of films past. The war obviously had an influence on British aviation related books and films, as evident in this case from Elleston Trevor’s previous occupation as a flight engineer with the RAF. I’m going to have to look out for some of his “airborne thrillers” too. I haven’t had the time to look up some of the Hammer films yet.

    • Hi Prashant, glad these Hammer titles are of interest. It did get shown in the US so probably does turn up on TV occasionally (been a while since it was on in the UK however …).

  6. Yvette says:

    Zachary Scott, to me, was always one of those ‘odd duck’ actors who was neither fish nor fowl. He was just a teensy bit too weird to be taken at face value. He was perfectly cast as the slimy boy friend in MILDRED PIERCE. In my mind he was ALWAYS the slimy boyfriend. I hate to be mean, but there you have it. But even as the slimy boyfriend it was hard to take him seriously. I mean, look at him.. That little mustache. Those oily good looks which occasionally bordered on the edge of ‘simpering’ if Scott didn’t watch what he was doing. That gleam in his eye denoting….what? Just what exactly went through Zack’s mind? He was really a cartoon stereotype. At least in my mind. I’ve been meaning to write a post about the handful of ‘odd duck’ actors over the years – Zachary would have been at the top of the list.

    But I loved reading your post anyway, Sergio, I always do – because they are so well written. You have the knack of making anything sound intriguing. Plus WINGS OF DANGER is a great title for a movie.

    • Thnanks Yvette – I am of course now unable to think of Zachary Scott as anything other than a peculiar drake – and I really look forward to your post on this phenomenon! I do know what you mean, he was very far from a conventional leading man and is not well suited to them. I am probably giving him the benefit of the doubt here due to the clear inadequacies of the script. But next week, definitely going for something different!

  7. Profuse thanks for directing your readers to my posts on Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall). I have yet to see either this film or Hammer’s other Trevor adaptation, MANTRAP, but am glad to see someone getting the word out about them, and him. I had to laugh when I read Yvette’s comment, because MILDRED PIERCE was almost certainly the first film in which I ever saw Zachary Scott and, like her, I will probably never be able to see him as anything other than the slimy boyfriend! :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by Matthew, much appreciated. I can feel my opinions of the film taking a retrospective downturn after all these comments about Scott – Yvette is one persuasive lady!

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Very nice post on what seems a flawed but interesting film, Sergio! Zachary Scott’s been on my mind recently as (as you know) I’ve just watched him in SHOTGUN. There’s a lot of truth in what Yvette says, that he’s an actor who seems better suited to supporting parts rather than leads, but then I haven’t seen enough of his films to judge fairly. He’s an interesting screen presence, no doubt, though his “little moustache” does him no favors…facially, Scott reminds me of another actor who was a master at playing oily, Jack Cassidy (one of my favorite COLUMBO villains).

    I enjoy a lot of these lesser-known Hammer films which are often ignored and are finally seeing the light of day on DVD. The studio’s horror output always seems to overshadow their other solid work in the adventure, swashbuckler, crime and suspense fields.

    Interesting that John Gilling was the writer on this…he directed two of my favorite Hammer horrors, THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES.

    • Thanks very much Jeff, glad you enjoyt these Hammer thrillers too (more reviews coming shortly). And that is spot on about Jack Cassidy! Hand’t occurred to me before but whe he had a moustache, as in his third Columbo outing ‘Now You See Him’, he really is so much like Scott. Gilling was a very busy, very prolific writer and director on TV as well and I think his pair of back-to-back Cornish horrors for Hammer are very good. On this occasion, and it is an early script, he didn’t do that great a job – another draft would definitely have been a good idea.
      Jack Cassidy
      Zachary Scott

      • Years ago I had the privilege of interviewing both MANTRAP’s Barbara Shelley (aka Kowin) and the late George Baxt, the respective leading lady and screenwriter of Gilling’s SHADOW OF THE CAT, both of whom said he was a rather disagreeable man to work with. Luckily, I was not a big admirer of his at that point, so the anecdotes didn’t color my judgment against him.

        • Sorry, SHADOW OF THE CAT, obviously.

        • That is fascinating Matthew, thanks very much for all the info. I really envy your being able to invterview Shelley and Baxt. I had heard that Gilling was not always a popular figure. I’m quite a fan of Baxt (I did some posts on him here) and was planning on watching Shadow of the Cat soon as I have never actually seen it. Baxt was quite critical of Gilling as I recall (not least for showing the cat!).

          • George did have an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate the importance of his alleged contributions to certain films (unlike, say, SHADOW OF THE CAT or CITY OF THE DEAD/HORROR HOTEL, which were pretty much all his). You can read all about his claims to have completely rewritten NIGHT OF THE EAGLE/BURN, WITCH, BURN, which Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont adapted from Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE, in my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4). That said, George was an endearing man and an amazing raconteur, as our FILMFAX interview amply demonstrates. We became friends afterward, and my wife and I had lunch with him in New York several times during the last few years of his life. I miss him. He remained great friends with Barbara, who was an absolute delight.

          • Fascinating stuff Matthew – once again, a great time for envy! I exchanged a few emails with Glenn Erickson about Night of the Eagle and its variant credits in the US and the UK as a draft of the Matheson / Beaumont srcript, entitled Torment I think, is housed at the British Film Institute’s special collections. Given Baxt’s collaborations with director Sidney Hayers he obviously did a certain amount on the shooting script but obviously nothing like what he did with their previous films together. City of the Dead is an amazing little film isn’t it? Recently watched it and was stunned by how good it was.

  9. John says:

    I’ve read Yvette’s run-down of Zachary Scott before. This one goes overboard. (What’s wrong with that mustache? Jeez.) Seems unduly harsh for an actor who seemed to have been typecast his entire career. How do we know he wasn’t a great guy in real life? Look at Vincent Price – unctuous and insane and creepy onscreen; affable, well rounded, smart guy off-screen. Ah well, it’s the curse of an actor.

    I can only recall Zachary Scott in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode in which he was stalked by a crazed secretary bent on revenge played by Phyllis Thaxter. No surprise that he was a slime bucket boss who seduced her with promises of marriage and dumped her. (“The Five Forty-Eight” (1960 season) – an excellent episode, BTW, with a script by Charlotte Armstrong based on a story by John Cheever!) After checking Scott’s filmography for movies I might have seen him in and forgotten his presence I see he was Max Thursday. Yes, Wade Miller’s private eye! He starred in Guilty Bystander (1950), a movie based on the very first Max Thursday book. So Scott had at least one other hero role on his resume. Wonder if he fared better in that one. I’d love to see that some day.

    • Thanks for that John. It’s a shame this particular movie, Wings of Danger, is so little known (my fault, my choice) as it makes it hard to generate any serious talkback on the title itself. Scott usually played bastards (and lily-livered ones at best) fairly often, but he was good at it. He’s pretty good in Edgar Ulmer’s fairly strange Ruthless, playing a character with a wonderful name: Horace Woodruff Vendig! I’ve never seen the Miller adaptation and it does sound intriguing – great poster too:
      Guilty Bystander

  10. My goodness, your blog is like the gift that keeps on giving. I followed the link above to your post about creating a Wikipedia page for George Baxt (God bless you), and was dumbfounded to see that the very next post was devoted to Matheson’s RIDE THE NIGHTMARE. Lo and behold, it was I who wrote the introduction to NOIR, the very collection in which you found RIDE. A small world…

    • You are much too kind – I had in fact meant to compliment you on that Matthew as I really enjoyed that edition and the excellent intro (plan to review Someone is Bleeding shortly in fact) – especially for that great quote where he talks about liking my favourite Golden Age mystery author, John Dickson Carr. In fact I should have linked to your site when I did my review of Dying Room Only for its fascinating info on MAtheson’s TV work with Dan Curtis et al. Cograts on Richard Matheson on Screen incidentally. Those interested in that book should a) buy it and b), read this interview with Matthew right here. Thanks mate.

      • HORROR HOTEL, as I knew it then, scared me so much when I first saw it at the age of around seven that I had to go and sleep with my parents. In grade school, I used to act out the climax for my friends (“The shadow of the cross!”). Even though it’s a low-budget and very unassuming little movie, with Christopher Lee only in a fairly modest supporting role, I think to this day—after countless viewings—that its atmosphere makes it one of the most effective horror films. Director John Llewellyn Moxey did a superb job, just as he did on Matheson’s original NIGHT STALKER TV-movie, which is all the more impressive when you consider how totally different in tone the two films are. I consider that George’s greatest screenwriting achievement, although CIRCUS OF HORRORS is fun, as well.

        • I only came across the film comparatively late, well after seeing many Hammer films as well as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Bava’s early excursions into horror (either on his own or for Riccardo Freda, most notably I Vampiri) and I think its a testament to its unique strengths that it stands up so well in and out of context. Baxt had every reason to be proud of that one while Moxey great success on TV, especially on Kolchack but elsewhere too especially the rather marvelous Robert Culp / Kim Basinger suspenser Killjoy (aka Who Killed Joy Morgan?) certainly seems well earned.

          • Not surprisingly, Bava is another of my obsessions. As for Carr, it may be quite a while before I have something substantive to say about him. I stumbled upon the Gideon Fell novels as a lad, and have continued to read the series sporadically over the years, but it has been so long since I read one that I don’t have any observations specific enough to commit to “paper.” Also have not read anything outside the Fell series. But I will take a look at your post.

          • Virtually any of the Henry Merrivale books from the 30s and 40s published as ‘Carter Dickson’, maybe with the exception of My Late Wives, is top notch in my estimation. But as you can tell, I’m a bit of a rabid fan …

  11. Pingback: Hat Trick « BRADLEY ON FILM

  12. Yvette says:

    As an aside, I do know George Baxt’s name as the author and creator of the wonderfully eccentrtic Pharaoh Love, the only openly gay NYC detective in fiction. That I can recall anyway.

  13. Pingback: The Last Page (1952) | Tipping My Fedora

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