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.
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