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Zero Hour! (1957)

“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.”

Zero Hour! is the film that inspired Airplane! and much of the dialogue and scenes were lifted wholesale from the earlier film. With such gems as the quote above, I can see how Zero Hour! was a candidate for spoofing (along with disaster films in general), though it is actually not a bad little B thriller. It’s quite tense at times.

Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) was a squadron leader during WWII, but when he makes a poor decision that costs the lives of six of his pilots during a bombing raid, he is shattered. Over ten years later, his confidence is still shot. He can’t settle down to a job, his marriage is in trouble, and he’s never flown a plane since. When his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) takes their son and leaves him, he manages to get on the same plane to talk with her.

And then the fish lays waste to half the passengers, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. It’s almost enough to reconcile one to those little bags of pretzels they hand out on flights now.  It’s a potentially fatal case of food poisoning and the only one who can fly is Ted (who, fortunately, had lamb chops for dinner). But not only does he still have a bad case of PTSD, but he’s also never flown a jet. The airline must get someone to talk him through his landing. The man they chose is Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who knew Ted during the war.

I think what adds a little tension to the film is the fact that literally no one has faith in Ted, including Ted. His wife has no confidence, Treleaven has no confidence. In fact, Treleaven thinks Ted is the kind of guy who always folds up under pressure, but he still has to instill in Ted that confidence he does not himself feel. There’s a lot at stake for Ted. No one respects him, his son could die of food poisoning, and he must wrestle with his sense of personal failure, all during a bad storm.

There seems to have been a whole spate of airplane disaster films during the 1950s: The High and MightyNo Highway in the Sky, and even Julie, where Doris Day notoriously plays a flight attendant who must land the plane after her insane husband shoots the pilot. In Julie, the exact same thing happens, where she has to be talked down by those on the ground with access to radar, who gives her blow by blow instructions via radio.

Perhaps it makes sense, since the 1950s was the first decade where average Americans were beginning to afford flying. We’re so used to flying now, it has less novelty or sense of danger (more like a sense of cramped and disgruntled impatience). Though perhaps that’s not strictly true. There was the recent film Sully, which captured some of the immediacy and potential tragedy of a plan crash. On the whole, I think our fears in regards to planes are more related to terrorism than accidents now. But by pilot error or terrorist, the fear that passengers must feel on a plane, which they cannot control, is still a relatable fear.

I have to comment on how flying is portrayed practically like a holiday (at least until the fish incident). Stryker is able to take his son up to meet the pilot, who gives his son a toy airplane. They serve meals, the seats look roomy, even the airplane bathroom looks about twice the size of the bathrooms today. Since movies tend to err on the side of fiction over fact, I have to ask: does anyone know how accurate that portrayal is? How much has flying really changed over the years?

If you have not seen Airplane!, I would recommend watching Zero Hour! first. I’ve read many people say that after seeing Airplane!, it is impossible to watch this without cracking up every few minutes. I must admit that I have not seen Airplane! yet, but after watching the trailer, laughed so hard that I decided I absolutely had to see it next.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Ox-Bow Incident – Movie and Book

Ox-BowI shouldn’t have read the book before watching the movie! Although I know that William Wellman’s searing The Ox-Bow Incident is a classic (and impressed me deeply the first time I saw it), this time around I was slightly underwhelmed. It still devastates, but felt like an opportunity missed.

The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of a lynching. It is set in the 1880s in Nevada and occurs over 24 hours. The book, published in 1940, was written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and was adapted as a film in 1943. Director William Wellman had to fight to make The Ox-Bow Incident. Studio heads thought it wouldn’t make money. They were proved right, but the film has nevertheless become one of the great classics of movie westerns.

The film is a remarkably accurate adaption of the book, even employing much of the dialogue. One difference is the pacing. William Wellman is one of the most economical directors I’ve seen and The Ox-Bow Incident comes in at a mere 75 minutes. He gives a wonderful sense of the speed at which men can hear (mistakenly, as it turns out) of a death, how quickly a lynch mob is set in motion (without checking up on facts) and how that quick decision will carry them along whether they have doubts or not.

The novel actually builds more slowly. Clark is interested in exploring the facets of how a lynch mob is formed and the various motivations of people. The book is nearly half over before they even set out in search of the murderers. In the novel, the crime isn’t haste, so much as passivity. Men are angry, and furious speeches are made to rile them up, but most men don’t really want to kill anyone. There is a lot of milling around in town while storekeeper Davies tries to talk them out of going. But men are afraid of appearing weak, unmanly, not part of the group. And Clark is interested in the phenomenon where, once people set out to do something, they continue doing it simply because they don’t want to look foolish by stopping.

film-page-feature-image-front-main-stage-2Another change is in the lead characters. The novel is narrated by Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan in the movie), who isn’t a particularly heroic man. He’s good at observing people and understanding people – the kind of guy people talk to – but ultimately he has no more moral conviction than anyone else and simply sits by while three men are lynched. His friend, Gil Carter (played by Henry Fonda) is described as a bull of a man, not someone who thinks a lot, but enjoys a fight. He, too, sits passively during the lynching, though he doesn’t quite like it.

In the film, a lot of Art’s characteristics, dialogue and even actions are given to Gil (because he’s Henry Fonda). And because he’s Henry Fonda, he’s a lot more heroic. In the movie, Henry Fonda tries to pull a gun to stop the lynching and everyone gets in a tussle. I guess they just couldn’t bear to have Henry Fonda be a complete moral coward? Though I suppose if he wasn’t heroic there would be little for him to do. Even as the movie is, Henry Fonda still plays a less heroic role than usual. Initially, he and Art go along with the lynch mob because they are afraid of being seen as outsiders who don’t stand with the group. But still, I can’t help but think it was a slight missed opportunity. It really would have been something to see Henry Fonda stand by passively, even if his conscience was bothered.

46212I was really impressed with Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, one of the men wrongly accused of murder and cattle rustling: his alternating fear, despair, the sense of unreality, the futility of talking to men who have already decided he’s guilty. He tries to take it like a man, but is scared, grieving and concerned about his wife and children. His very human reaction embarrasses people (in the novel, men are repeatedly embarrassed by the frank revelation of emotion). It’s a wonderful performance that really communicates what it must feel like to be powerless in the face of a group of people determined to kill you.

One change that puzzled me related to Major Tetley, who wants the lynching to happen because of his son, Gerald. Gerald and Major Tetley loath and despise each other. Gerald is sensitive and feels like a coward, but Tetley wants him to participate in the lynching and believes it will make a man of him. In the book, Tetley is a soldier who fought on the Confederate side. In the movie, he is an impostor in uniform. I can’t think why they changed that, unless it was because they didn’t want to show a former soldier in a negative light during WWII.

Inevitably, the issue of blame is softened in the movie. When the sheriff asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching, in the movie Davies says, “all but seven.” These are the seven who vote against the hanging (there are only five in the book). But in the book, no one gets away from blame quite so easily. The people who you would think have the least to blame themselves for take it the worst. Davies is in torment by the end of the novel, convinced that he could have done more. He admits to Art that at the moment of the hanging he was glad he didn’t have a gun, because it meant he didn’t have the option of pulling a gun on Tetley to try and stop him.

176481-004-F5221D4AIn the book (as is mostly true in the movie), there are no heroes, no would-be heroes. But the situation doesn’t call for heroes, someone to come in with guns blazing to save the day at the last moment. It calls for the majority of men involved to check themselves, stop what they were doing and be willing to look weak or silly to do the right thing. It requires the majority of the people to even know what the right thing is.

But despite being somewhat underwhelmed, it remains a superb movie. I just shouldn’t watch it the day after finishing the book – it’s distracting! But Wellman directs a spare film and keeps the focus inexorably on the story. He doesn’t go overboard making Fonda a hero, he doesn’t add any unnecessary romance, conversation, scenery. The entire film is focused on one thing alone: the lynching. It’s a film impossible to ignore or to forget.

This post is part of the “Beyond the Cover Blogathon,” hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy, who I would like to thank for hosting this wonderful event! For the rest of the contributions, click here for Day 1 and Day 2.

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Posted by on April 10, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen_Angel_1945_posterIf anyone ever offers you the role of the good girl in a film noir, say no. It is one of the most unforgiving roles I have ever seen in the movies – like playing “the other woman,” a third wheel – and femme fatales were made to run away with movies. Unfortunately for Alice Faye, she said yes in 1945. An extremely popular star at 20th Century Fox, she was previously known for her musicals (I love her voice) and wanted to move on to more dramatic films; as Dick Powell managed to do in 1944, transitioning from singing tenor to playing hard-boiled detectives. But Dick Powell’s first foray into noir was with Murder, My Sweet and Alice Faye chose Fallen Angel.

It’s not that Fallen Angel is a bad film; it’s definitely worth a look and is fairly enjoyable, despite some plotting issues. And Alice Faye wasn’t even that bad in the role; it was just a role not even Bette Davis could turn to much account and it did not further her career. In fact, it was the last film she made for sixteen years. It did, however, further the career of Linda Darnell, who played the femme fatale.

Dana Andrews is Eric Stanton, a drifter and a con artist who drifts into Walton, a small town between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He stops at a tiny diner and meets Stella (Linda Darnell), who seems to have all the men obsessed with her. There is Pop (Percy Killbride), who owns the bar and is nuts about Stella. There is also Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a married man and a retired cop who always comes into the diner just to gaze at Stella and who plays the same song on the jukebox that Stella likes called “Slowly.” There is also another guy who services jukeboxes named Atkins (Bruce Cabot). Stella does not seem noticeably impressed by all this attention.

Dana Andrews and Stella

Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell

Inevitably, Stanton falls for Stella, but though she likes him she is rather dismissive of him, too, since all he seems to be offering is the same line that all the men have offered through the years and she has decided that she’s done with that. She wants a home and a husband with a little money and she’s no longer giving anything unless there’s a ring. Stanton says he’ll marry her and promises that he’ll get some money, somehow.

Stanton’s plan to get money is to fleece June Mills (Alice Faye), daughter of a much respected former mayor, who plays the organ, likes books and lives with her protective older sister, Clara (Anne Revere). June falls in love with him quickly, but he soon realizes that he can’t get her money without getting married, which they do, despite Clara’s warnings that he’s no good.

When Stanton tells Stella what he’s done she’s even less impressed and they argue (I would be nonplussed, too, if a man told me he was crazy to marry me and then arrived to say that he’d married another woman, all for me).That night Stella is murdered. Judd is asked by the police to help with the investigation and there are no shortage of suspects: Judd himself, Pop, Atkins, Stanton and even Clara, who found out about Stella and seems just protective enough of her sister to be capable of it. Stanton, however, is afraid that Judd will pin the murder on him and flees Walton, with June coming along with him.

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

The rest of the film is part mystery and part romance, with the con artist redeemed through the unalterable love and faith of a good woman. June is probably the first person who ever believed in him. The trouble is that her faith seems a trifle willful. There’s nothing in his behavior to indicate that he might have a good heart, hidden, somewhere and her faith seems less based on anything we see in him and more on her apparent determination to have him. She loves him, she wants him, so she has faith. The result is that she gets stuck with some rather weak dialogue and not much motivation. Her role is to be patient and sympathetic. Alice Faye plays her gracefully, but there’s just not much to do with it and nobody can look good in a film when they are obliged to to be seduced and then stand by their man.

Linda Darnell, however, is a more interesting character. She’s more siren than femme fatale and one you can sympathize with. Stella is world-weary, a bit sulky, and has seen it all (except a ring) and been given promises by a lot of men. She’s a femme fatale who would rather be somebody like June (whereas June wants to be more of a Stella, which I assume is why she marries Stanton despite the fact that he’s obviously on the make). If Judd, Stanton and Pop are any sample of the kind of men Stella’s met through life, you can understand her attitude and I couldn’t help rooting for her to find what she is looking for.

Murder suspects - the landlady looks on as Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Murder suspects – the landlady looks on while Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Fallen Angel is kind of like a sequel to Laura. It has the same director (Otto Preminger), same leading man (Dana Andrews), same composer, (David Raksin), same cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) and even same set designer and so forth. And a similar theme of obsession and ownership over a woman. The result is that it looks very good. It is the plot that falters. It’s a bit incredible and a trifle choppy and uneven. The acting is universally fine, however – even Alice Faye is not bad.

It’s too bad that Fallen Angel was Alice Faye’s last movie. Supposedly her role was cut down by producer Darryl Zanuck and Linda Darnell’s role was built up (Darnell went on to play many more sirens). Also, Faye was supposed to sing the song “Slowly,” which was removed from the film. When she saw the finished product, she wrote an angry note to Zanuck and left the studio. It wasn’t a decision completely out of the blue, however. She had recently given birth to her second child with husband and bandleader Phil Harris and when she finished making movies, she devoted more time to her family, also working in radio with her husband. She later said she was perfectly comfortable leaving her movie career behind, despite many of her fans’ and even Darryl Zanuck’s attempts to get her back into movies.

I think the moral of the story is, however: never play the good girl in a film noir.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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