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Crash Landing
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Crash Landing

This is Transatlantic Flight 627, a journey from Lisbon to New York. It is, of course, doomed. There wouldn't be much of a movie if this flight was to be uneventful. Even the originally proposed title, Rescue at Sea, seems too cheery. Better signal those omens right away with a title like Crash Landing (1958). Barely have the credits finished rolling than the disaster is underway: the plane is past the point of no return, with nothing but ocean underneath it, two of the four engines have failed, and the flight attendants start passing out the inflatable vests. And the movie has only just started.

However, it is away from the main action that we find a revelatory moment, a glimpse into the movie's true intentions. It is a flashback, involving mostly characters who are not even on the plane. Here we meet the family of Captain Steven Williams (Gary Merrill), the stoic pilot at the wheel of Flight 627. His wife and son see him but rarely, on those fleeting occasions when he blows into their lives just long enough to berate them before returning to the skies. Williams cannot see that his long-suffering wife or terrified son have hopes and dreams-or failings and weaknesses, for that matter. To him, they are like engines on a plane: machines to be maintained so that they can be trusted to function properly.

During dad's absence, his son has traded a bicycle (which he hated) for some records (which he loves). It was a sensible move, but when dad blusters in with a new bike horn he wants to install, things get ugly fast. The poor kid tries to deflect his father's attention with a white lie, but once he's backed into a corner and forced to admit not only that he got rid of the bike but lied about it, he is severely punished. At which point, having trampled over the self-esteem of his family and left them in tears, Captain Williams has the temerity to announce that he's only in town for 48 hours and wants to enjoy himself during that time.

Gee, thanks, dad!

But here's the thing of it-as much of an overbearing bully as Williams seems in this scene, the underlying principle that drives him is a refusal to compromise. His unwillingness to tolerate human weakness in others makes him a terrible father and husband, but a heroic pilot. By movie's end, there are 33 people (and a dog) who owe their lives to his value system.

Now, a reasonable outside observer might try to make the point that there is a difference between demanding perfection when you are in charge of a bombardier brigade fighting Nazis, or at the helm of a commercial airliner full of people whose lives are in your hands, and having that same inflexible attitude towards your own children. But Captain Williams cannot see that distinction-indeed, as far as he's concerned, even trying to parse out when it would be OK to make a compromise is itself a hated compromise. In his world, it is never acceptable to blink. Unable to see nuances, Williams is forever trapping himself and others in no-win situations. Notice the interesting irony that Williams, unable and unwilling to trust anyone else, inflexibly insists on ditching the doomed plane at night, even though it drastically reduces the risk of success.

As with any airplane disaster movie, the formula calls for a motley group of passengers to be brought together in a confined space. Their interpersonal romances, conflicts, jealousies, and hopes spark off one another, until they are thrown into enough unexpected peril to put those dramatic tensions into a new context. Crash Landing collects an eclectic cross section of society: a middle aged man and woman whose time on the flight serves as a sort of first date, a mother and her newborn baby, a boy and his dog, a pair of horndog soldiers, even an orthodox priest clutching his bejeweled cross. The most notable passengers, though, are a pair of businessmen. One is a hardworking Joe who has struggled to claw his way to success. In Lisbon he clinched an important deal that he hopes will catapult him at last to the good life. His coworker is a lazy drunk who has his personal charm and family connections to thank for his success. He missed out on the deal because of a prior engagement to a bar stool, and fears repercussions if he returns to New York with nothing to show for his trip. The two strike an uneasy bargain-if worker ant lets his alcoholic grasshopper friend share credit for the deal, then in return the grasshopper promises to back the worker ant's corporate ambitions. It seems fair enough, but as the flight continues both men start to rankle at it, each one feeling he has sold out something of importance. By the time death is staring them in the face, they are eager to abandon the bargain and insist on some measure of personal integrity, no matter the personal cost. Some things you can't compromise.

The filmmakers are careful to frame Crash Landing in a very specific context. Captain Williams is a war hero, and it is precisely his experiences in WWII that inform his stance. On board his flight are other American soldiers-and the climax of the film involves an American destroyer on maneuvers. This is 1958, but it isn't peacetime. The audience sitting in the theater would have come in with fresh memories of such things as Soviet tanks rolling over Hungary, Sputnik flying over their heads, Nikita Kruschev vowing, "We will bury you." And in response to these threats, America was digging its own heels in with a domestic Red Scare that scuttled many innocent people's careers, suppressed political dissent, and would in years to come find American law enforcement officials training their weapons on the very citizens they were sworn to protect. The Cold War was a war of ideologies, which is to say it was about two opposing sets of principles that adamantly refused to acknowledge any possibility of compromise. In defense of its principles, America at times was turning into a monster.

Crash Landing is a grown-up movie about real world problems, mapped onto a disaster movie formula. On the surface it is a gripping thriller about panicking people forced to crash their plane into the sea-inside that fragile shell is a ruminative drama about what happens when you refuse to compromise.

If that seems like too much ambition to expect from a B-level programmer, we should reacquaint ourselves with its maker.

Once upon a time, there was a theater director named Fred Francis Sears. He was good at his job and beloved by the community he served. But he was a deeply unhappy man, at odds with his wife and feeling a gnawing chasm inside his soul. So he tried to take his own life. When this didn't work, he enlisted in the army to go kill Nazis. When that too failed to cure what ailed him, he decided that what was missing from his life was movies. It was off to Tinsel Town, where he landed at Columbia Studios in the B-Western unit as a utility player in the stock company for "Durango Kid" flicks. Being a former theater director as well as being an actor meant that Sears had a knack for management and a good rapport with actors. It was not long before he was in charge of directing the "Durango Kid" series, which he did with extraordinary alacrity.

This caught the attention of Sam Katzman. The legendary "Jungle Sam" was a notorious penny-pinching producer renowned for making films for less money and in less time than anyone else. Coupling that efficiency (or miserliness, choose your word) with an uncanny feel for pop cultural trends (comic books, superheroes, science fiction, rock music, Elvis!), Katzman was making Columbia's most profitable pictures. One of his favorite product lines was cliffhanger serials. Short, fast, full of action-they were a great place to play with excessive violence, costumed superheroes, underdressed girls, and things that go boom. The problem was, they had a grueling production schedule that taxed most directors to the breaking point. Katzman decided to throw Sears to the serial wolves and see what happened. Sears proved himself more than up to the challenge.

From that frying pan, Sears was on to the B-picture oven. Katzman's features were being shot in just six days on a budget of less than a third of what was being spent on the serials. Under these conditions, just finishing was an achievement. Sears not only finished, he made good movies.

Sears was well-organized and worked fast. He brought out the best from his performers, kept the pace frantic, embraced violence, and was willing to take risks. The sad truth of it was, he was so unhappy at home, he threw himself into work as an escape. He never went over schedule or spent more than he was allotted, he didn't complain, and he turned in consistently high quality pictures. His reward for all this, in a cruel irony, was that he was taken for granted, and assigned to unimaginative programmers that denied him the chance to develop more creatively rewarding projects.

In the four year span between 1953 and 1957 he directed 29 full-length pictures, not to mention copious television work. At any given moment he might be handling up to three separate TV shows at once. He literally worked himself to death. He dropped dead in his office at the young age of 44-on a Saturday no less-in November of 1957. The obituaries perfunctorily listed a string of B-picture credits to his name, none of which had much box office allure nor articulated who he was as a person. But Sears had the last laugh. He was so prolific, he had left behind five finished films, stacked in the in-box of Columbia's distribution division, awaiting release. A year after his death, they were still putting new Sears films in theaters (Columbia made a grisly habit of this, distributing films by dead comedians like Harry Langdon and the Three Stooges' Shemp Howard).

One of these posthumous thrillers-indeed the best of them-was Crash Landing, released in February 1958. Air disaster movies comprised a special genre unto themselves-and with Zero Hour! the year before, it was a genre on the upturn. 1960 would see The Crowded Sky, with Dana Andrews playing a character remarkably similar to Gary Merrill's Capt. Williams. By the 1970s, the genre had a brand name of its own, with Airport (1970) and its successive sequels. By the end of the decade, the Airport series had become a bloated target for parody, and Airplane! (1980) trotted out all the old clichés as jokes and brought the cycle to an end. There are scenes in Crash Landing that anticipate Airplane! jokes-setups without punch lines, clichés before they had the chance to become familiar.

The disaster cycle of the 1970s traded on star power, but a film as impoverished as Crash Landing doesn't have such luxuries. The biggest star in Crash Landing's firmament was Nancy Davis. The future Mrs. Ronald Reagan gets second billing for what would be her last screen role, but has little actual screen time. She plays Williams' long-suffering wife Helen, but playing a land-bound character in a movie set in the skies, she is relegated to the sidelines. Top-billed Gary Merrill was not anyone's idea of a movie star. Merrill was a character actor better suited to supporting roles, such as his part in 1950's All About Eve. It was there that he met Bette Davis, and the two fell fast in love. They married and raised a family together, until financial strife and arguments ended their union after ten years.

At the head of a tight B-thriller with a fighting weight of just 76 minutes, Merrill's muted screen charisma was no special obstacle. He is convincing as a killjoy perfectionist who genuinely believes that if he stops riding his team so hard, people will die. Around this figure, unsung low-budget auteur Fred Sears builds a movie determined to prove him right. Don't watch this one before a long trip, folks.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Fred Freiberger
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Gary Merrill (Captain Steve Williams), Nancy Davis (Helen Williams), Irene Hervey (Bernice Willouby), Roger Smith (John Smithback), Bek Nelson (Nancy Arthur), Jewell Lain (Ann Thatcher), Sheridan Comerate (Howard Whitney), Richard Newton (Jed Sutton), Richard Keith (Arthur White), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Ortega), Lewis Martin (Maurice Stanley), Hal Torey (Calvin Havelick), John McNamara (Phil Burton).
BW-76m.

by David Kalat

Sources:

Wheeler W. Dixon, Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood, Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Wheeler W. Dixon, The B Directors: A Biographical Directory, Scarecrow Press, 1985.

Monthly Film Bulletin 25: 288/299 (1958) p. 61

"Meet Jungle Sam," Life, March 23, 1953. VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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