Wednesday, August 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Fair to Middlin'

Aviator and novelist Ernest K. Gann sold the film rights to his novel The High and the Mighty to John Wayne before the book was even finished. The pair and director William A. Wellman had worked together on Island in the Sky, and figured to match that movie's success with the new novel.

Wayne hadn't originally planned to star in the movie, but when Spencer Tracy and others backed out of the role of veteran co-pilot Dan Roman, he took the part for himself. It resulted in a kind of unusual role for the Duke. Even though well into his icon period, he's a part of more of an ensemble cast along with pilot Robert Stack and passengers Claire Trevor and Laraine Day.

A Honolulu to San Francisco flight is captained by the superficially rock-steady but actually nervous John Sullivan (Stack), with Dan Roman as his main co-pilot. They're backed by the young Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell), navigator Lenny Wilby and stewardess "Miss Spalding" (Doe Avedon), and they have a group of passengers with a variety of different stories. As a midair malfunction imperils both plane and occupants, the qualities of each passenger and crew member will be shown as truth or a false front.

Even for a 1954 audience, this was rather clich├ęd material. The actual disaster storyline and scenes are interesting enough, but the individual histories and character interactions are so soapy and well-worn that they might as well feature subtitles that say "Please Fast-Forward Now." Some of the actors have some good lines and a character or two occasionally threatens to become interesting, but neither happens often enough to justify the two and a half hours of running time.

The Airport movies would later magnify the airline disaster story into its most bloated format before being punctured forever by the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker shot of Airplane!. But The High and the Mighty shows that both the strengths and weaknesses of the genre were built in from early on.
Fix in your mind the scene between The Merovingian, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in The Matrix Reloaded. Now take that mountain of deadpan philosophical meandering, stretch it out to fill an hour and a half and shoot it in black and white, and you have the 2009 independent sci-fi neo-noir Yesterday Was a Lie.

Detective Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown) hunts a notebook said to have deeply dangerous research notes and a man named John Dudas (John Newton) who could be a key to finding it and explaining what it contains. But her straightforward search is complicated by the way that reality seems to be bending around her and Hoyle finds herself reviewing similar scenes many times and in conversations with people who may not exist, such as The Singer (Chase Masterson). Will she go mad unless she finds Dudas? Or will finding Dudas be the final blow to her sanity?

Writer and director James Kerwin gives his characters several meditations apiece on the possible impacts of quantum non-locality and the many-worlds hypothesis it might imply, as well as a discourse or two on Carl Jung's thinking about the anima and the collective unconscious. When some of the biggest science fiction movies of the day hinge on robots that turn into cars, that kind of thoughtful subject matter is pretty welcome.

But...Kerwin's dialogue is not at all natural and far more didactic than conversational or narrative. Characters spout these big ideas in speeches to each other rather than reflect on them as reality with which to be reckoned. And although cinematographer Jason Cochard and Kerwin do an absolutely stunning job of using the noir two-tone pallet to set mood, and they are as creative in employing light and shadow as anyone has been in the last 50 years, their work is in service of a flawed final result.

Part of the problem is the way the story is told, as mentioned above. Another is that the cast simply doesn't have the gravity to make the kind of impact characters in the original noir classics did. This isn't their fault, unless we can be blamed for being born when we were. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings of the 1940s and 1950s had seen the Great Depression and World War II, and had a period of adolescence lasting probably less than half of that experienced by people in that same age range today. Lauren Bacall was only 19 when she made To Have and Have Not, but 19 was a whole lot more grown up in 1944 than maybe even 29 is today. So Brown, Newton and Masterson -- even though Brown, at least, offers a quality performance -- always look more like people acting like the people in the old noir classics. And that one step of removal deadens the story that much more.

Kerwin earns kudos for tackling some thinking material in Yesterday. But he owes them all back because of substandard execution and a final product that would have been much better served by being reduced to a Twilight Zone episode.

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