Monday, 3 February 2014

The Man in the Sky (1956)
(aka Decision Against Time)
Jack Hawkins
This is a rather unusual film: the story of a test-pilot and his attempts to keep a damaged aircraft in the air long enough to use up sufficient fuel to allow him to land safely on one engine, so that the problem can be fixed and the company can win an order that will stop it going out of business.
So, you say, what's so unusual about that? Quite simply this: around one third of the film is shot in real-time, the drama is played out in periods of silent tension and, when the tension is finally broken, there are absolutely no hysterics.

Anyone know the man on the left? Walter Fitzgerald, Ernest Clark, John Stratton and Russell Waters

Walter Fitzgerald, Ernest Clark & John Stratton
When the plane finally lands safely, there are no scenes of joyous excitement. The pilot, John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) isn't carried shoulder high by celebrating airfield staff. In short, this isn't Top Gun - you'll find no scenes of back-slapping homoeroticism here. Instead, Hawkins climbs into his car, drives home, picks up the laundry ...
Jack Hawkins
... sits in isolation, argues with his wife ...   
Jack Hawkins & Elizabeth Sellars
... then telephones an estate agent to put an offer on a house. As simple as that. He an extraordinary man, with an ordinary life.

I know that Jack Hawkins is hardly one of the UK's most popular ever actors, and some critics have been very harsh about his talents, but here Hawkins is perfect. Like The Cruel Sea, The Man in the Sky is a tale of someone struggling with life in the most extreme circumstances. Everyone is relying on him and he can't help but struggle under the weight of expectation and responsibility. And that is when directors always seemed to get the best out of Hawkins.

In many ways there are similarities between the characters played by Hawkins in both The Cruel Sea and The Man in the Sky: Both are men who will do their utmost to withstand pressure, to combine doing their duty with what they consider to be right. They seem able to attain greatness but struggle to handle recognition.  Both are men who are somehow disappointed and dissatisfied with their situation: in The Cruel Sea Captain Ericson would prefer to still be in charge of a Merchant Ship, responsible only for his own crew, whilst John Mitchell is a test-pilot growing old in a world surrounded by pilots who saw operational service in wartime, whilst he was fated only to serve as a flight instructor despite his attempts to see action. In the film his assistant test-pilot is even an ex-RAF pilot who he had trained. And both Ericson and Mitchell are characters on the brink of cracking under the strain they have taken upon their shoulders.

Jack Hawkins
 In a way, the film has a continental feel to it. Don't ask me to explain that, but it somehow doesn't feel British - and certainly doesn't have an ounce of Hollywood about it. The finest point is the note prepared by Mitchell for his wife at the point he thinks he might die: although the existence of the note is pivotal, the audience finds out what he had written.

I noted from the credits that Seth Holt was an associate producer on the film. As the man who directed one of my all-time favourite Ealing films - Nowhere To Go - and two of the best Hammer productions - Taste of Fear and The Nanny - maybe it's simply that he has the magic touch (for me at least).

In many ways, it has a distinctly modern feel in the way it handles the reaction of witnesses to the incident: Understandably, the staff at the airfield come out to watch what is happening. After all, this is man they know risking his life to save the company. However, a journalist arrives but realises there will be no story unless the plane crashes. Similarly, a group a cyclist arrive to watch, only to depart the moment they realise they wont be treated to drama.

Howard Marion-Crawford
Also appearing are:
Elizabeth Sellars & Catherine Lacey

Megs Jenkins

John Stratton as the co-pilot Peter Hook (who also appeared as a subordinate to Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea and The Long Arm)

Victor Maddern & Lionel Jefferies

Eddie Byrne

Donald Pleasance (with Eddie Byrne & Jack Hawkins)
Also of note, from a period perspective, was the lack of health & safety for car passengers when Mitchell takes his children for a ride. it reminds me of the days when children could move about at will in a car:

For those interested in this sort of thing, the plane is a Bristol Type 170 Mark IIA:

In the words of Keith M. Johnston, a lecturer of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia: "this remains a fascinating film, and one that should be better known among the Ealing canon."

I agree.
 Currently available on DVD.
 This poster from the film's US release is currently available from Greg Edwards:

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