Sunday 13 November 2022

Movie Review: No Highway In The Sky (1951)

A commercial aviation drama, No Highway In The Sky demonstrates respect for science but loses altitude in a languid third act.

At the Farnborough air base in England, newly arrived executive Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) meets one of the employees, American aeronautical scientist Theodore Honey (James Stewart). Honey is an absent-minded eccentric obsessed with testing metal fatigue caused by vibration on the tail section of the Reindeer, a modern aircraft recently entered into service. He is also raising his daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) on his own, after losing his wife during the war. 

Honey 's calculations suggest the Reindeer's tail will fail without warning after about 1440 flight hours, although his lab tests are yet to prove the theory. He boards a flight to Canada to investigate a recent crash and is shocked to find himself on a Reindeer plane approaching the 1440 hour limit. He raises the alarm with the Captain as well as fellow passenger Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich), a glamorous movie star, and flight attendant Marjorie (Glynis Johns). But his warnings to turn the plane back will not be immediately heeded.

After 1950's Harvey, director Henry Koster and star James Stewart re-team for another drama hinging on idiosyncrasies. No Highway In The Sky is an adaptation of a Nevil Shute novel and one of the earliest cinematic attempts to tackle the potential dangers of commercial flight. Despite plenty of (intentional) bafflegab extending to nuclear fission, the narrative focus is on science, engineering, mathematics, and rigorous testing.

What could have been dry subject matter is animated by the eccentricities of Theodore Honey. He is the prototypical absent-minded scientist who cannot remember his own home address, but can master complex mathematics and pass on his knowledge to his daughter through engaging games. Stewart overplays the role with exaggerated mannerisms, but his antics also inject a potent dose of likeability and humour.

Koster plays with various model and back-screen projection effects (some ok, others dreadful) to capture the flight scenes, while the roomy interior of the fictional Reindeer best resembles a hotel lobby. The film peaks in the middle third, the flight from England to Gander, Newfoundland introducing two women for Honey to fret about in Marlene Dietrich's movie star and Glynis Johns' stewardess. But first and foremost on the scientist's mind is the likelihood they will all die because the tail might fall off over the Atlantic. Koster keeps the drama finely poised between looming tragedy and warm character interactions shrouded in kindness.

Unfortunately all the events after that flight are grounded, and not in a good way. Energy seeps out quicker than jet fuel can be burned, as Honey struggles to prove his theory while the two women wonder if the scientist is worth the trouble of a love triangle. The ending is particularly flat, blurted news from elsewhere and an obvious scientific oversight colliding in a rushed wrap-up. No Highway In The Sky enjoys a brisk take-off and a good flight, but bungles the landing.

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