No Highway in the Sky
KL Studio Classics
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 99 min. / Street Date February 7, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring : James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins, Janette Scott, Niall MacGinnis, Kenneth More, Ronald Squire, Elizabeth Allan, Jill Clifford, Felix Aylmer, Dora Bryan, Maurice Denham, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Bessie Love, Karel Stepanek.
Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Film Editor: Manuel del Campo
Original Music: Malcolm Arnold
Written by: R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard, Alec Coppel from the novel by Nevil Shute
Produced by: Louis D. Lighton
Directed by Henry Koster
A few years back, whenever a desired title came up on list for a Fox, Columbia or Warners’ MOD (made-on-demand) DVD, my first reaction was disappointment: we now want to see our favorites released in the better disc format, Blu-ray. But things have changed. As MOD announcements thin out, we have seen an explosion of library titles remastered in HD. Pundits claim that media discs are on the wane but conditions couldn’t be better for collectors. This vintage 20th-Fox adventure-suspense thriller is a perfect example — we get the movie in a quality presentation, plus a good, newly produced commentary. It’s like the heyday of DVD again.
This particular show has a fascinating back story. Star James Stewart is quoted as saying that when he returned from WW2, he wasn’t sure if he would continue to be an actor. Gone five full years, he came back with the unevenly received It’s a Wonderful Life, the solid noir hit Call Northside 777 and a series of weak performers that did nothing for him. But Stewart’s career really took off with 1950’s Winchester ’73. His agent-partner Lew Wasserman brokered a deal that made Stewart a free agent commanding a percentage of most acting jobs. From then on it was top productions at whatever studio wanted him. He was free to continue the popular westerns with Anthony Mann and to make himself available for three more major productions with Alfred Hitchcock.
Fox enticed Stewart to England for 1951’s No Highway in the Sky, a thriller with an aviation theme that surely appealed to him. Stewart was at that time (I believe) a full colonel in the Air Force. Australian author Nevil Shute (A Town Like Alice, On the Beach) had referenced his experience as an aeronautical engineer and pilot to write his 1948 book No Highway. Fox’s production utilizes top English talent, supporting American stars Stewart and Marlene Dietrich with an all-Brit cast. Experienced but un-heralded Fox workhorse director Henry Koster proves the ‘anti-auteur’ theory: the show may not express the director’s personal themes, yet is an expertly filmed entertainment, with a witty script, taut suspense and moving sentiments.
England’s Rutland aviation establishment is humming with new jet designs, including a fancy new turboprop luxury passenger plane called the Reindeer. New executive Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) gets the full tour, and meets engineer-researcher Theodore Honey (James Stewart), an absent-minded but brilliant metallurgist working on theories concerning metal fatigue. Indulged by the front office, Honey is conducting vibration tests on the tail section of a Reindeer to see whether its exotic alloy will fracture under prolonged stress, an event he says should occur at around 1440 hours. The front office is indulging Honey just to be thorough — Reindeer passenger flights have already commenced. One experimental plane did crash in Labrador, so Honey is dispatched to aid in the examination of its tail section, should it be found. Honey is in mid-flight before he realizes that he’s flying in a Reindeer… which has already logged over 1400 hours. Honey’s understandable concern creates a furor on board. Captain Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis) doesn’t know how seriously to take Honey’s rather frenzied warnings, and radios London for instructions. Passenger Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich), a film star, becomes concerned and begins hours of close discussion with Honey, who despite his odd behavior seems to know what he’s talking about. Keeping things calm is stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns). The awkward savant appears to stimulate her maternal instincts. (More on the plotline below.)
Author Shute’s emphasis on technical matters in this ‘cracking good yarn’ stimulates the mind like a good science fiction story. The futuristic luxury ship Reindeer is a wishful-thinking cozy haven complete with a casual lounge and a full kitchen, where all seats are First Class. Yes, I’m talking unlimited LEG ROOM, but also a spacious cabin and an airy cockpit that would cure any claustrophobic.
Writers R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel have fashioned a well-rounded thriller. Author Shute worked backwards from the situation of a ‘boffin’ realizing he’s on an aircraft that might break into pieces at any moment. The premise raises issues of personal and social responsibility. Is the aircraft company negligent if unforeseen flaws show up in their planes? How much safety research is enough? Theodore Honey says that he can’t be concerned about human lives as he chases down his private theory about metal decomposition due to vibration. If his work proves to be a benefit, fine, but company policy is somebody else’s job. The movie plays as if meant to boost the British aircraft industry and promote air travel, but I’m not sure this film would make people feel at all safe, at least not on a new airplane. As it turns out, Nevil Shute’s specific safety concerns were soon vindicated. Just a few years later, the commercial airliner De Havilland Comet was diagnosed as having serious metal fatigue problems, after three of them broke up in mid-flight.
James Stewart’s Theodore Honey is a classic oddball professor, the kind that can’t find his way home in broad daylight. He’s written to be endearing but Stewart overloads him with cute performance mannerisms, including an irregular walk. Stewart plays it serious, telegraphing the idea that below the goofy tics, Honey is a thoughtful and sensible man. There is a character contradiction involved. Stewart shakes his head like a confused fuddy-duddy. But when he warns the captain or presses a serious issue with Dietrich or Johns, he shows that he’s much better attuned to emotional communication. The character makes use of a convenient disconnect — Honey lives in a cloud yet is also warm and personable when required. He’s an addled brainiac AND a tender soul perfectly able to interact with his peers and loved ones.
Stewart was a supremely effective actor-communicator despite his limited repetoire of acting mannerisms. When worrying about imminent death, he chews his knuckles as did George Bailey when contemplating suicide. When he looks at his daughter Elspeth we can see the warm and loving George Bailey trying to get out. As audiences wanted more than lessons in aircraft science, it made sense to play up the dotty professor angle. Written into the script is an obligatory James Stewart scene that occurs in several Capra films as well as Call Northside 777. Honey interrupts a meeting and tells off the executives with fiery oratory, before storming out in a loud but polite rage. The stammering egghead suddenly makes a sophisticated, passionate courtroom defense that would stagger Clarence Darrow. It makes for a good scene, even if Stewart is adding to his Greatest Hits in Overplaying. If you love Jimmy Stewart, no harm is done.
By 1950 Marlene Dietrich’s film career had slowed down considerably, although the double whammy of Witness for the Prosecution and Touch of Evil was still in her future. No Highway in the Sky is one of her better pictures. Her movie star Monica Teasdale is just wonderful — vain but not ridiculous, a working professional well versed in dealing with all kinds of men. Teasdale sizes Honey up as 100% sincere, and is impressed that he stands behind his professional judgment, no matter what. Dietrich also looks great. They keep telling us that the actress had an earthy side, but I have a feeling that passengers sharing a plane trip with her would have seen exactly what we see here.
We immediately fall in love with the endearing Glynis Johns. Ms. Johns underplays stewardess Marjorie’s sweet manner, supporting Stewart’s exaggerated reactions. In the film’s third act she makes the film her own. Stepping in to fix everything, Marjorie is the one to put Honey’s house in order and to attend the problems of his sweet daughter. Johns looks good in her little Reindeer cap and is funny when she offers to wear her nurse’s uniform to squelch gossip with the neighbors. The censors probably overlooked the potential cohabiting arrangement on the basis that Theodore seems so completely sexless.
The British cast performs as if auditioning for bigger-paying Hollywood work. We forget that big names like Jack Hawkins and Glynis Johns were not yet international stars at this time. The only difference I can see between this show and a straight English production is that some of the actors slow their speech and avoid dialects, to help out us thick-eared Yanks. The lineup of familiar faces includes Niall MacGuinnes (Curse of the Demon) as the no-nonsense pilot, and a young Kenneth More as his co-pilot. The main executive at Rutland is Ronald Squire. He first dismisses Honey’s work, then is ready to have him hanged, and finally sits like a one of Frank Capra’s ‘Granpa’ figures, smiling quietly at Honey’s principled outburst.
Almost everyone else we see is an established personality — Felix Aylmer, Maurice Denham, Wilfrid Hyde-White have just a few lines each. Elizabeth Allan is in maybe three shots as Jack Hawkins’ wife. The same goes for Dora Bryan, the barmaid. Someone must have liked her in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol. Finishing off the cast is young Janette Scott as Elspeth, Honey’s precocious, adorable daughter. This is the best film I’ve seen by the future star of Day of the Triffids and Crack in the World. Elspeth loves her father, but considering his incompetence at understanding the girl’s problems, is dying for some womanly guidance.
The show maintains excitement and suspense despite James Stewart’s somewhat predictable character. The screenwriters dropped some unnecessary ideas from Shute’s book. A Cold War angle had the Russians getting involved because one of their Ambassadors was killed in the plane crash in Labrador. And Elspeth plays some kind of supernatural game, to come up with a clue to finding the crashed plane’s tail section. The show instead concentrates on an action by Professor Honey that, in real life, might be called terrorism. My synopsis above doesn’t get even halfway through the storyline. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t I wouldn’t want to ruin what is a BIG spoiler. So I’ve continued my explanation in a footnote, below. ↓ Really, if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read it.
The film’s special effects are good aside from a couple of dodgy traveling mattes of the plane taking off. The design of the Reindeer is a little screwy, with a two-tiered tail stabilizer that looks like a scimitar. I’ll bet that the producers were warned to make sure that the plane did not resemble any actual aircraft in operation. It looks as though a real passenger plane was altered to serve as a giant full-sized prop. Its cockpit interior has a polished wooden instrument panel, like an old Jaguar car. This realism really pays off for the movie.
No Highway in the Sky is an intelligent, thoughtful thriller with a unique premise and endearing characters. It also encourages deeper thought about idealists that take great risks to do the right thing, even if they might be judged as Ibsen-like Enemies of the People. Who takes responsibility for anything anymore?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of No Highway in the Sky is a fine HD transfer of this polished production. At this point in time, when Hollywood was moving work to England, the English studios did their best to maintain high technical standards. The rear projection effects are particularly good, and the lighting by Georges Perinal flatters Ms. Dietrich without bathing her in exotic shadows.
I noticed a few soft shots, and there’s some light scratching on part of a reel. Otherwise the show is in perfect shape. It’s possible that this is the same scan done for the 2011 MOD DVD, but encoded at the much bigger bitrate.
Kino includes several trailers including the heavily hyped notice for this film; we can tell it’s for the U.S. release because the Brit release title was simply No Highway.
Very welcome is a commentary hosted by Jeremy Arnold, a film writer from TCM becoming well known for TCM publications and his work on disc releases of prestigious Sony pictures. Arnold brings a fat dossier of research to the commentary and balances it with the memories of his guest commentator Bob Koster, the son of director Henry Koster. The overview of Koster’s impressive career (he began as Herman Kosterlitz) will be news to many film fans. He has been pigeonholed as a journeyman director without a distinctive style, which really means that he didn’t self- promote or make trouble for the studio bosses. Koster’s less interesting movies were assignments that nobody could redeem — The Singing Nun, for one — but he was certainly more artful overall than a studio hand like Richard Thorpe.
Koster fils’ story of his father’s exit from Nazi Germany is one of the better ones I’ve heard, and we get a great anecdote about Charlie Chaplin’s admiration of No Highway and the performance of young Janette Scott. Frankly, the relationship between Scott’s teenager and the adults in this movie is handled better than Chaplin’s sentimental scenes for most of the sound era. Arnold points out subtle things in James Stewart’s performance that seem grossly overdone to me, but are probably pitched well for the audience of 1951. Whenever Stewart stops acting and simply reflects moments of concern or tension, he’s terrific. Even if they make the role something of a cartoon, I’ll allow that the broader ‘Harvey’- gestures and clowning provided needed comedy relief. It’s good to see a picture with so much worth talking about, given a thoughtful and well considered commentary.
Both Arnold and Mr. Koster practically apologize for those two less-than glorious traveling matte shots of airplanes landing. They’re not beautiful, but they’re no worse than the distracting effects in the British movie The Dam Busters a couple of years later. Let’s call them not bad, but dated.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
No Highway in the Sky
Supplements: New audio commentary by Jeremy Arnold and Bob Koster
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 20, 2017 Dies Irae
This is the big SPOILER. The Reindeer plane safely lands at its first stop in Gander, which convinces Captain Samuelson that Theodore Honey is a crackpot. When Samuelson decides to take the Reindeer on the next leg of its flight, Honey sneaks on board and wrecks it by hitting a lever that makes the landing gear fold up as it sits on the ground. It’s an unprecedented act of sabotage-vandalism. The rest of the movie sees poor Honey being assailed as insane, while various characters try to defend him. (This of course mirrors the conflict in several Frank Capra films). The aircraft company continues Honey’s vibration test on the Reindeer tail section on a 24-hour basis. Nobody will fly on a Reindeer unless Rutland announces that the plane-wrecking was the work of a madman. The people defending Honey — Marjorie, Elspeth, Monica Teasdale and Dennis Scott — don’t know what to think when the test passes way beyond Honey’s 1440-hour fail prediction mark, with the Reindeer tail remaining intact.
The film’s finish is so satisfying that nobody is bothered when the head of the aircraft company seems overjoyed that his new Reindeer plane has been proven a death trap. With the ignominious failure and scandal, his company is now headed right for the drain, and will perhaps take a big piece of the Brit economy with it. So why is he smiling?
In our increasingly technological world, this kind of moral and ethical dilemma happens all the time. Who are we to believe when a dispute comes up over the safety of airplanes, cars, medicines? If the Reindeer incident causes the public to lose faith in the British Aviation industry, the economic impact on England might be severe. The pressure to okay iffy work is bad enough when lives are not at stake, but we’ve seen plenty of examples of gross negligence on activities that threaten lives and even the whole environment — the BP Oil Spill, for example, or the controversy over fracking. It’s all about money and politics, of course. The 1986 Challenger Disaster occurred because Morton Thiokol engineers were pressured to keep quiet about bad seals on rocket fuel tanks.
My father was a flight line maintenance supervisor for twenty years. He spent countless hours inspecting Air Force planes for ‘stress fatigue,’ and had to go back to school to learn about metallurgy to qualify to spot defects. If he had the slightest doubt about a part he’d reject it, and so grounded planes all the time. Because of his flawless safety record, commanding officers competed for his services. I think Dad would not have functioned well in commercial aviation, where maintenance men are likely pressured to cut corners all the time.
Certain that he’s right and everybody else is wrong, Honey commits an act of million-dollar sabotage and saves lives. Hooray! In real life, if everyone ‘took a stand’ like this over every political controversy, society would come to a standstill. I personally think that school buses should be a lot safer. Should I sabotage a dozen of them to make a statement? What about Greenpeace and animal rights activists, who are often labeled as terrorists?
No Highway in the Sky is the exception because Honey is an engineer dealing in hard facts: the airplane’s tail will either fall off or it won’t. He’s lucky that the evidence so dramatically upholds his theories. But a lot has happened since 1951 — a huge chunk of America is rejecting science outright, even as they enjoy its benefits.. Many people reject basic medical policies, jeopardizing the general health.
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson