“Control centre can protect you if you stick to your flight plan; one change, and you stand a good chance to hit—or be hit. It’s a crowded sky…”
Director: Joseph Pevney
Starring: Dana Andrews, John Kerr, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Anne Francis, Rhonda Fleming, Troy Donahue, Joe Mantell, Frieda Inescort, Keenan Wynn, Jean Willes, Patsy Kelly, Tom Gilson, Louis Quinn, Hollis Irving, Donald May, Karen Green, Ken Currie, Ed Prentiss, Ed Kemmer, Warren Parker, Mary Patton
Screenplay: Charles Schnee, based upon the novel by Hank Searles
Synopsis: At a naval air station in San Diego, a young sailor named McVey (Troy Donahue) arrives to claim the single passenger seat on an eastbound jet, bumping an officer from the flight. However, when the latter hears that the jet is to be piloted by Commander Dale Heath (Efrem Zimbalist Jr), he gladly surrenders it—wryly wishing McVey good luck. The clerk explains to the alarmed McVey that, three years before, Heath was involved in a mid-air collision in which he manoeuvred to save himself; three men on a light bomber were killed. As he prepares for his flight to Washington, Dale Heath discusses the state of their marriage with his wife, Cheryl (Rhonda Fleming). An unhappy military wife, Cheryl is also a serial adulterer; however, Heath tells her he does not want a divorce: he believes in sticking to the jobs he takes on. Heath’s compensation is his teenage daughter, Anne (Karen Green), to whom he is devoted in spite of the long absences that are a necessary part of his duty. Anne reveals that she knows his new mission will see him based in Washington for flights to the Mediterranean, and confides that she wants to attend boarding-school in Washington, to be near him. When Heath mentions Cheryl, Anne comments bitterly that her mother won’t care… Seen off by Cheryl and Anne, Heath explains to a nervous McVey the rules of the air that will keep them both safe. McVey hesitates, then asks about the mid-air collision. Heath admits that while the B66 was at the wrong altitude, the collision was his own fault: he was remembering his service in Korea and, at the moment of emergency, responded as if in a combat situation. Heath then asks McVey if he still wants to fly with him? McVey says simply that he must get home… In Washington, First Officer Mike Rule (John Kerr) and his stewardess-girlfriend, Kitty Foster (Anne Francis), travel by taxi to the airport. Kitty tells Mike about the rest of the crew; he reacts strangely when he hears that the captain will be Dick Barnett (Dana Andrews). At that moment, Barnett is in the office of the head of Trans State Airlines, Joseph Bruce (Ed Prentiss), refusing an offer of a promotion to Operations Manager: he says flatly that he doesn’t want a desk job. As he goes to leave, Bruce tells him that there was a mix-up about the crew scheduling, and that his First Officer will be Mike Rule… The flight crew works out their route, noting expected rough weather over Abilene; Flight Engineer Louis Capelli (Joe Mantell) warns Barnett that the previous crew on their plane had trouble getting the nose wheel down and locked. As Barnett and Capelli leave to check the wheel, Kitty questions Mike about the obvious tension between himself and Barnett. Mike avoids a direct answer, saying only that though they were once friends and colleagues, these days Barnett hates his guts. However, despite these technical and personal issues, the flight is boarded and takes off without incident, its path direct to Los Angeles… Meanwhile, as his jet approaches Phoenix, Heath discovers that he has trouble with his radio, which is giving him only broken and uninterpretable transmissions from air-traffic control…
Comments: The year 1960 gave audiences a strange and intriguing pair of disaster movies: The Last Voyage, which offers the highest disaster-to-running-time ratio of any disaster movie I have ever seen; and The Crowded Sky, which offers perhaps the lowest disaster-to-running-time ratio of any disaster movie I’ve ever seen.
In fact – in a 105-minute movie – the actual disaster in The Crowded Sky occupies perhaps 15 seconds of screentime, with its consequences and resolution occupying a mere 7 minutes more.
(It is also largely executed via some extremely dodgy model-work, which I found hard to take this time around, in the aftermath of a viewing of The Last Voyage’s hyper-realism.)
And yet no-one watching The Crowded Sky would dream of classifying it as anything other than a disaster movie. In this, it acts as the perfect illustration of my seemingly reductive definition of a disaster movie as “a movie about a disaster”, inasmuch as the 93 minutes that precede this film’s 15-second disaster exist purely in order to get us to that moment.
And not only in this way is The Crowded Sky a textbook disaster movie; far from it. If The Last Voyage gets its effects from stretching the formula as far as it could go, The Crowded Sky is so narrowly formulaic, at times it feels like an early, unacknowledged parody of its genre: a kind of dry run for Flying High!
In this respect, The Crowded Sky also serves to illustrate the rapidity with which the modern disaster movie – born only in 1954, with The High And The Mighty – became an often ridiculous compendium of tropes and clichés.
Make no mistake: with its domination by – groan – “character scenes”, its plethora of over-familiar subplots and its painfully heavy-handed direction, The Crowded Sky is sometimes hard going; yet at the same time, it is not entirely without value as a disaster movie, however brief the disaster in question; while it also carries within it some moments that make it very clear that the heavy hand of the Production Code was at long last losing its grip. If, overall, the film’s focus upon s-e-x occasionally feels a little puerile, the matter-of-fact way in which the screenplay presents the sexual misconduct of both its leading ladies, and the non-judgemental way in which their respective stories are handled, signal a welcome new maturity.
The Crowded Sky wastes no time intimating just what sort of film we’re in for. Once its block-letters-zooming-towards-the-viewer credits, carrying within them the promise of the sort of reliable ensemble cast disaster-movie fans had already been taught to expect, are out of the way, we are introduced to a young sailor named McVey, running late for his hitched flight from San Diego to Washington. His arrival bumps an officer from the flight in question—though the latter is only too happy to give up his seat when he hears that “the El Toro guy” would have been his pilot.
(“El Toro” is a reference to the El Toro air station in Orange County, which until its decommission in 1999 was the west-coast home of US Marine Corps aviation.)
McVey questions the clerk, who tells him that his pilot, Commander Dale Heath, was involved in a mid-air collision three years earlier, in which three air-force personnel were killed. Nevertheless, Heath’s flight is the only one heading to Washington that day, so McVey has no choice.
Meanwhile, Heath himself is at home, getting dressed—while his slip-clad wife lounges in their bed, smoking and regarding him with rather mocking amusement.
I may say I was surprised on this viewing of The Crowded Sky to learn that Rhonda Fleming’s character is called “Cheryl”—pronounced with a hard ‘CH’, which I’ve never encountered before – is that common in America? – and had previously misheard as “Charro”.
Be that as it may, Fleming surely never looked more beautiful than she does here—the camera’s lingering love-making interesting in light of her Bad Girl role. Indeed, the subsequent conversation between Cheryl and her husband rubs the viewer’s nose in the former’s misbehaviour. We learn that Heath caught her (the term is used) “in flagrante delicto”, and that subsequently – on the advice of her lawyer – she re-seduced her husband in order to ward off any threat of divorce proceedings. (Cheryl uses the term for that, too, “Condonation.”)
To her surprise, Heath says flatly that he doesn’t want a divorce; that he believes in sticking with the jobs he takes on—even if it’s, “A rotten job.”
Via a series of flashbacks – The Crowded Sky almost drowns in that particular disaster-movie cliché – we trace the early days of the relationship between Cheryl and Heath: their obsessive relationship during his time at the Naval Academy, where Cheryl exploited her privileged position as the daughter of a Rear Admiral; Heath’s eagerness for marriage tempered by his realisation that this would mean he would be expelled from the academy—and Chery’s retaliatory announcement of her pregnancy; and their subsequent compromise of a delayed marriage, to allow for Heath’s graduation, in exchange for an academy-chapel wedding.
A leap of some years finds the couple, a very young Anne in the backseat of their car, passing through Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico—which Cheryl takes as a sign. She admits then that the pregnancy was a fake (we gather she faked a miscarriage, too), though she adds that Heath ought to be flattered by her determination to catch him. It’s a choice she has come to regret, however, and she presents Heath with an ultimatum: up until now she has been faithful in spite of endless opportunities to be otherwise during his numerous absences; but if he enlists to serve in Korea as he is thinking of doing, she won’t be waiting patiently at home…
He did—and she didn’t. This adds an intriguing shading to Cheryl’s Bad Girl persona, as her subsequent serial adultery is shown as quite as much about lashing out at Heath as Cheryl’s own pleasure and amusement. It is something she has kept up to the present day, her inability to play the role of “navy wife” only increasing over time.
(We know, of course, that in addition to Heath’s war-service and other duty-absences, there has been the matter of the mid-air collision, Heath’s escape from death, and the fallout from the incident.)
Yet this too has its consequences: in another welcome touch, the screenplay separates Cheryl’s sexual conduct from her general honesty; and she is honest enough about herself to know that Anne would be better off without her—even though the girl represents her own best chance of holding Heath. It is Anne’s wish to attend to attend boarding-school – “To get away from me,” Cheryl comments, not without bitterness; although in fact it is chiefly to allow her to see as much of her father as possible, once he has begun his new assignment of Mediterranean flights from a base in Washington. Knowing that this arrangement would be best for Anne, Cheryl agrees to her going.
Immediately prior to his departure for Washington, Heath collects thirteen-ish Anne from her school and takes her out to lunch. And it is Anne who wins – or “wins” – the perverse privilege of a first instance of what is, of all of them, is The Crowded Sky’s most crass and annoying tic: a zoom-in close-up followed by a voiceover internal monologue, something employed here to the point of absurdity.
As the camera zooms in this first time, we hear Anne’s resentful inner voice: “Mother’s so wrong for you! She keeps trying to rip you apart! Why’d you ever marry her?”
(Small wonder Flying High! mocked this: “Jim never vomits at home!”)
Cheryl and Anne see Heath off from the air-base, the latter waving a wistful farewell. Heath greets McVey, who has never flown in a jet before, and tries to soothe his obvious nervousness by explaining flight procedure to him: that eastbound flights like theirs fly at an odd altitude, in this case 21,000 feet; whereas westbound flights fly at an even altitude, 22,000 or 20,000 feet, as the case may be; with ten minutes’ flying time front and back, in addition to the thousand feet either way, and tracking by air-traffic control.
Less encouraging is Heath’s explanation of eject procedure. Invited to ask questions, McVey hesitates, but then brings up Heath’s accident record. He hesitates in turn, then admits his culpability: that while the bomber was at the wrong altitude, he had been distracted, thinking about his war service—and he reacted as he would have done in combat, pulling up so that the bomber struck his underside and he was able to eject, rather than sacrificing himself by diving into the underside of the bomber, as he should have done.
In response, McVey says only that he has get home; answering Heath’s inquiry, “Trouble?” with a sombre, “Yes, sir.”
With Heath in the air, The Crowded Sky shifts east to Washington D.C., and to what is – Cheryl Heath’s general conduct notwithstanding – the most eyebrow-raising aspect of the film: the character of Kitty Foster, who introduces herself casually as, “The ex-champ of tramps.” She says this in the course of demanding to know why Mike Rule won’t marry her, when everyone knows ex-tramps make the best wives. Besides, there’s what she learned at stewardess school:
Kitty: “Where else would you get a wife trained to sit, kneel, bend and squat so charmingly?”
That line pretty much sets the tone for most of Kitty’s dialogue, which is liberally peppered with double-entendres—when she bothers with the double. But while this is undoubtedly another example, during the studios’ war with television, of a film taking advantage of the comparative freedom of the movie-screen, Kitty is much more than the familiar stereotype of the sex-kitten stewardess; while her relationship with Mike Rule is likewise far more complex than the usual stewardess / pilot hook-up.
As with the Heaths, we get Mike and Kitty’s first meeting via flashback, with the former waking up with a crushing hangover in the latter’s bed—albeit fully dressed except for his shoes. Kitty treats Mike’s hangover matter-of-factly, pours black coffee into him, and fills him in on the fuzzy details of his previous evening’s bender.
Mike, however, is focused upon a portrait of Kitty hanging on the wall—something he painted, though he’s sure they’ve never met before, and which she acquired from a local gallery. Kitty herself bemuses him even more by cross-questioning him about his father, the much-married and highly eccentric artist, Noah Rule. Mike corrects her misapprehension by explaining that while Noah painted hundreds of works, he destroyed all but four of them before he died—then invites her on a light-plane trip to see all four.
Kitty is game—even when Mike lays down some ground-rules: he has ambitions to be an artist himself; he is working as a pilot to earn enough to take several years off and find out if he’s kidding himself about that; and has no intention of acquiring responsibilities such as a wife and children.
Kitty calmly retaliates with some ground rules of her own, informing him that firstly, they didn’t sleep together, and secondly, that they’re not going to; that she’s an ex-tramp – now reformed – with (so to speak) a hair-trigger, which can be set off just by kissing; so there won’t be any kissing, either…
And on this rigidly platonic footing, the two set out to visit the life’s work of Noah Rule: two paintings in San Francisco museums, one mural on the wall of a Texas post office, one painting in the possession of a wealthy Texas widow.
By the time they’ve got to Texas, and to Noah’s Depression-era mural of the breadlines, Mike is comfortable enough with Kitty to ask about her reformation—and she comfortable enough with him to tell him the truth: that one of her affairs led to pregnancy, and the offer of an abortion; that instead she carried the child to term, though knowing she would have to give it up for adoption; and that those managing the situation not only refused to let her see her baby, they wouldn’t even tell her its sex; nor has she even been able to find out.
And that was that: the ex-champ of tramps.
The final stop on their art-hop is Dallas, at the home of a Mrs Mitchell, who owns what is considered the jewel of Noah Rule’s tiny output—but claims she has forgotten how she came to own it. By now Kitty has seen enough to recognise Noah’s in-painting signature, that none of his living beings, human or animal, have faces; so quite as much as Mike, she is startled when she sees on another wall what can only be a fifth surviving work by Noah Rule.
For Mike, however, the painting has a greater significance—and he demands to know which wife Mrs Mitchell was? The second, she admits (Mike’s mother was #5); and goes on to break some shattering news: that Noah isn’t dead, as Mike was told, but in a mental hospital, catatonic.
It was Mike’s mother who sold the unknown fifth painting to the now-Mrs Mitchell, in order to pay for Noah’s care; the two women agreed that Mike should not be told the truth about his father. He is being told now, Mrs Mitchell adds, because Noah is painting again – painting Mike – although not his face…
Mike and Kitty’s next stop is Noah’s asylum (“We prefer ‘sanctuary’,” insists the old man’s unctuous and toothy attendant), but the visit is not a success—the attendant explaining apologetically that he doesn’t know where Noah got those matches… But, he adds, if Mike has gotten through to his father, Noah will look back as they leave.
But he doesn’t.
Kitty is shrewd enough to see that there are reasons beyond those declared for Mike’s rejection of marriage and fatherhood. She realises too that, in some way, the meeting with Noah, however hurtful in some ways, has affected Mike’s own thinking.
By the time they’re back home, Kitty has changed her mind—and fully intends to overcome Mike’s own resistance and marry him. She is perversely delighted – knowing herself as she does – to discover that she can kiss Mike and not “blast off”; and though her kisses have quite a different effect on him, the ex-champ shuts her door firmly in his face…
…leaving Mike caught between his two worlds and two ambitions: to be an artist, free of emotional encumbrances and responsibilities; and to be a pilot, married and a father. He is still (despite Kitty’s campaigning) sticking to his first plan when he is assigned the flight to Los Angeles—and Dick Barnett as his captain.
Barnett, meanwhile, is rejecting a desk job offered by the head of the airline, insisting that his only ambition to hit ten million flying miles. That achieved, he might reconsider. As he turns to leave, his boss tells him apologetically that due to a mix-up, his First Officer on his next flight will be Mike Rule…
This triggers what is – thank God! – the final set of lengthy flashbacks in The Crowded Sky, with most of the other characters forced to expressed themselves via interior monologue or – less frequently – by actually responding to their immediate circumstances.
But first we have to wade through Dick Barnett’s own memory-stream: the birth of his only child, and his manoeuvring to have the boy named “Dick Jr”; his friendship with – and mentorship of – a young Mike Rule; the crumbling of his relationship with his son, partly because of the death of his wife, the boy’s mother, partly because of his own determination to turn Dick Jr into a pilot, whether he likes it or not (he doesn’t), and partly because of his own perfectionism, and the demands he makes on others.
Though much of this is familiar (Barnett is the same stick-up-the-butt type as Gary Merrill’s Steve Williams in Crash Landing), there are two moments worth noting. The first is when, in the car on the way to his mother’s funeral, young Dick turns to Mike for comfort rather than to his father—who can do no better than a stiff inquiry as to whether his mother would want him crying like that over her? (The boy, bless his obstinate, grieving heart, responds with an emphatic, “YES!”) We understand that whatever happened later between Barnett and Mike, it had its roots in the former’s jealousy.
The other startling moment is Dick Jr’s teenage rebellion, when he becomes one of a group – gang? – caught vandalising a house. This is a weird, split-visioned moment, hanging on the precipice between the 50s and 60s: the kids themselves are rather unconvincingly dressed-down, and despite that clearly the children of privileged suburbia; yet according to the police, they’ve been guilty of breaking and entering, trashing the house in question, and unspecified activities that required, “Pushing the mattresses together.” Barnett is one of the mortified parents summoned to the scene.
We’ve already heard from Mike than it was Barnett who prevented him from making captain; yet another flashback reveals the circumstances: a conversation at a rather drunken poker-game, wherein Barnett gave his “unofficial” opinion of Mike’s unfitness for promotion, knowing full well how it would be taken—the “official” grounds being that, given his artistic ambitions, Mike is insufficiently dedicated to his job.
Much later, Mike explains to Kitty that it wasn’t Barnett’s prevention of his promotion that bothered him: it was that he enjoyed doing it. As Mike understood very well, Barnett’s intervention had nothing to do with his art, and everything to do with his relationship with Dick Jr.
Not, however, that any of that mattered, once he’d planted his fist in Barnett’s face…
(It was Mike’s post-fight bender that introduced him to Kitty, so the night wasn’t all bad.)
Following the poker-table incident, careful scheduling kept Barnett and Mike apart: this flight to Los Angeles is the first in years for the former friends who once, “Flew a million miles together.”
The Crowded Sky does not present its flashbacks as coherently as (I hope!) I have done, but intercuts them with the present-day action over the first hour and a half of the film. Meanwhile, the various other subplots begin making themselves felt. All of these derive from the film’s lengthy source novel, where they are worked out in full; here, they are given very short shrift (if perhaps not short enough).
There’s the maudlin: Dr Benedict and his wife, the latter of whom has a serious heart condition, but doesn’t yet know (if you guessed that by the end of the film she’ll have found out the hard way, give yourself a gold star); the sentimental: lonely middle-agers Sidney Schreiber and Beatrice Wiley, too scared and shy even to speak to one another, until disaster strikes (we’ve seen this before, also in Crash Landing, though I suspect Marty may be the immediate influence); and the embarrassing: woman-scorned Gloria Panawek accidentally reunited with former lover, TV-writer Nick Hyland who, without recognising her, starts putting the same old moves on her…
(That the worst person in this film works in television speaks for itself. However, the casting of Keenan Wynn – and that stupid moustache! – as a tom-catting TV-writer is beyond ridiculous.)
Meanwhile, in the here-and-now, exasperated agent Gertrude Ross is escorting her twitchy, self-absorbed method-actor protégé, Bob Fermi, from Broadway to Hollywood (I’ve seen references to Brando, but to my eyes Tom Gilson is “doing” Dennis Hopper); while lone passenger Samuel N. Poole exchanges ominous looks with Barnett to the point that we begin to suspect he’s here to do something stupidly dangerous and make the disaster exponentially worse, à la Sidney Blackmer in The High And The Mighty, but whose back-story turns out to be boring and quite unnecessary. (If it’s supposed to make us think Barnett is a nice person, mission not accomplished.)
And – in a subplot both hilariously obvious and wonder-of-wonders relevant – young air-traffic controller Norm Coster has a wife who has been experiencing stop-start labour pains for forty-six hours, to no good end, while he hasn’t slept for fifty-two…
And with all that finally out of the way, we may at last be able to concentrate on THE ACTUAL PLOT!!!!
At the airport in Washington, the flight crew meets to plot their route and discuss any potential problems, which include a suspect nose-wheel and anticipated bad weather. Kitty is immediately alert to the tension between Mike and Barnett, not least because of Mike’s use of “Captain”, when everyone else just says “Dick”.
The passengers board, and Kitty (sign of the times) checks their tickets after they’ve taken their seats: this is where the internal monologues start in painful earnest. Up in the cockpit, the crew do their pre-flight check, periodically interrupted by Flight Engineer Louis Capelli’s stream of ugly stories about his monstrous wife—
—which in themselves are tacky in the extreme, but which with hindsight we are forced to forgive: when he is called out by the perceptive Mike, Capelli admits that he adores his wife, so much so he must force himself to think of her as a monster, or he’d never be able to leave her to do his job…
Barnett, meanwhile, calls out Mike:
Barnett: “If you have to call me ‘Captain’, say it, don’t spit it.”
He’s still spitting it, however, when he points out that Barnett is flying 500 feet above their assigned altitude (that is, at 20,500 feet). Barnett justifies it as making a smoother flight for the passengers and dismisses Mike’s reprimand, pointing out that he is in charge.
Such are matters with Trans States 17 when we return to Navy Jet 8-255. Heath is slightly alarmed when a radio transmission lets him know that there is another jet in his vicinity—and more than a little alarmed when his transmissions start breaking up. The other jet does cut across in front of 255, but fortunately at a good safe distance. Heath goes back to trying to fix the radio, but with no success. He tells McVey that they should be safe as long as they stick to their flight plan; change it at all, and, well…
To try and take McVey’s mind off things, Heath starts to talk to him about the Naval Academy. McVey presents a case – purely theoretical, of course – wherein the academy found out a cadet had a wife— “They’d boot him out,” says Heath. “No ifs, ands, or buts.”
Which has the effect of shutting McVey up again. (And triggering a lengthy flashback, but we’ve already gone there…)
Back on TS-17, we get our first intimation that something may be not quite right with Engine #2: both Barnett and Capelli will subsequently check on it. Kitty calls for Mike’s assistance in the galley. As soon as he’s gone, Capelli asks Barnett why Mike hates his guts? – to which Barnett replies only, “Because I kept him from making captain.” Mike, when Kitty asks why Barnett hates his guts, is more forthcoming, at least to us (ibid.).
Flashback done, Mike returns to the cockpit—and points out that Barnett is still 500 feet over altitude; this time threatening to report him if he doesn’t go down. For a moment it seems like he’s going to follow through, too—until he decides that management wouldn’t take his word over Barnett’s: “Seniority’s such a sacred cow.” Barnett smirks, and keeps the plane right where it is.
Meanwhile, 255 succeeds in getting a clear signal from El Paso, with full landing instructions, to the relief of both on board. A sudden blast of ice-crystals inside the jet startles McVey, but Heath only laughs, explaining that he was so focused on the radio, he forgot to use the heater to clear the pressure system.
In other words—he got distracted again…
At El Paso, Heath and McVey get something to eat; Heath checks their proposed route, also noting the rough weather expected over Abilene; while a muttered line here about their vector informs us that they’re on the same flight-path as TS-17…if not at the same altitude.
McVey then builds up the nerve to say what he’s been busting to say all along: that’s he’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant, that she wants him to marry her, that he really wants to attend the Naval Academy, and what should he do? Heath, evidently a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of guy, tells McVey that in spite of everything he should on no account marry his girlfriend—unless he really loves her, which McVey admits he does not.
(The film backs this scene with a soft playing – tacitly through the dining-room speakers – of the famous theme from A Summer Place, which hadn’t been released when this started filming. Warners lucked out there: the film was a smash, briefly making a star out of Troy Donahue; so was its theme, which spent a good chunk of 1960 on top of the Billboard charts.)
The conversation is briefly interrupted by a technician, who has checked the radio. He tells Heath that the relay was faulty due to moisture, but that it’s fine now. Nevertheless, before they take off again Heath checks in with the tower, and is relieved to get a good strong signal.
Back down on the ground, at Midland Centre air-traffic control, word comes that Norm and Sally Coster’s baby is finally on the way for real. Norm begs his manager for relief, but he points out that they’re already short-handed, and if Norm takes a break someone will have to handle three sectors. Norm reluctantly accepts this, but is tempted away from his post when his eager but inexperienced colleague, Rocky, insists that he can cope for a while.
On TS-17, Barnett and Mike are checking their scope for the predicted rough weather over Abilene; Barnett plots a detour to the south that should keep things as smooth as possible. He then leaves the cockpit, partly for coffee, partly to check on #2 engine—warning Mike before he goes not to alter the plane’s altitude.
To the west, Heath tries putting in his first call to Midland Centre, only to discover that the radio is playing up again; in fact, it is altogether out of order. More in hope than expectation, Heath keeps calling for an altimeter reading, explaining to McVey that the radio, the navigation and altimeter all work together – or not – and that without an accurate altimeter, the plane will inevitably begin to drop; though there is no way of telling how much.
McVey is for turning back to El Paso, but Heath tells him that going on is standard procedure. He also explains that their best chance is to switch their IFF system to its emergency setting: when this is picked up by Abilene, they will relay a message to Midland Centre, where a air-traffic controller should be able to see what the problem is and broadcast an altimeter setting over the omni-receiver.
Of course—all this depends upon the air-traffic controller being alert and quick-thinking…
And most unexpectedly, that’s more or less what happens: Norm is back at his post when the call comes from Abilene, and he immediately deduces radio trouble. Asked about altitude, Abilene reports that the jet is at approximately 20,000 feet, one thousand below where it should be. It is Rocky who theorises that the pilot is probably listening to his omni-receiver, and that they can reach him that way.
And they do: Norm sends an urgent message for the jet to climb immediately, as well as the necessary altimeter setting. Heath pulls up, the jet plunging into the thick cloud banks over Abilene.
Norm and Rocky then check their main scope, noting the appearance on it of the jet’s emergency beacon—and also the presence of Trans State 17.
Norm sends a message direct to TS-17, warning them of 255’s presence and ordering the plane dropped immediately to 18,000 feet. Barnett responds as quickly as he can—except, of course, he has to drop the plane, not 2,000 feet, but 2,500 feet—
—which means that as TS-17 descends and 255 ascends through the thick cloud over Abilene, they find each other…
The Crowded Sky is a peculiar movie—and an even more peculiar disaster movie. It is a long film with a short disaster, which is dealt with in an oddly prosaic manner, free of the genre’s usual ramped-up melodrama. We may fairly ask whether it is worth sitting through the rest to get to it—to which the answer can only be, “Yes and no.”
Even as early as 1960, disaster-movie watchers were accustomed to the character-filler surrounding the central cast. The Crowded Sky never succeeds in making the viewer invested in the fate of any of these supporting players, although it is possible to derive some mild – and occasionally inadvertent – amusement from a couple of their subplots. (If all else fails, constructing a drinking-game out of the interior-monologue zoom-ins might be the way to go.)
With respect to the main characters, we have a problem of a different kind. There is no question that the storylines involving Mike and Kitty, separately and together, are the most interesting part of the film—but when all is said and done, and for all of the running-time they occupy, they don’t really have anything to do with the film’s central premise. And this is also largely true of the marital woes of the Heaths.
However, there is enough unexpected material in these subplots to keep them consistently interesting, even if only on a prurient level. It bears repeating that this film’s attitude to its female leads is almost startlingly free of judgement; nor is there any suggestion, in the working out of the plot, that anyone is being “punished” for their past behaviour. The actions of Cheryl and Kitty do have consequences, both for themselves and others, but there is no sense here that their choices require any special explanation or justification.
But for all that it gets right with respect to its central characters, there’s an unfortunate hole in the middle of The Crowded Sky. It is Dick Barnett who needs to learn a lesson; but it is a lesson that can only be learned at the expense of others. Furthermore, it is Barnett’s subplot alone that really impacts the disaster scenario – and vice-versa – but as with Steve Williams in Crash Landing, we’re left to wonder why the viewer should care whether this fundamentally unpleasant and arrogant individual has a good relationship with his son or not.
But even if we manage to part the smokescreen of its character material, The Crowded Sky’s disaster is oddly handled, with several dangling plot-ends. For instance— Apparently having set up air-traffic controller Norm’s absence from his post at the moment of crisis, there he is after all, dealing with the situation. But does he deal with it correctly? Are we, for instance, to understand that he was distracted—and perhaps should have order TS-17 to change direction as well as dive?
And speaking of distraction, we are repeatedly shown that Dale Heath has a tendency to zone-out while flying, which played a significant part in his first mid-air accident; yet when (excuse me) things come to the crunch here, we’re given no reason to think it a contributing factor.
The big question, however, is—are we intended to be critical of Mike for not reporting Barnett’s refusal to fly at the correct altitude? – or is Mike right in his assumption that a complaint from him would have made no difference?
No answers are provided to these questions; no guidance is offered as to what conclusions the viewer is supposed to draw. But perhaps that’s how it should be.
In the end, the importance of The Crowded Sky in the evolution of the disaster movie is the way it reflects the real world’s increasing understanding that an aviation accident is rarely if ever due to one factor, but usually the result of a combination of factors—and a combination of people.
Previously, we have seen mechanical failure (in The High And The Mighty and Crash Landing), a bomb (in Jet Storm and Jet Over The Atlantic), food poisoning (in Zero Hour!), and a random loony in the cockpit (in Julie) causing our aeroplane disasters. The Crowded Sky is the first disaster movie to give us the more realistic scenario of mechanical failure plus pilot error plus the personality or private issues of the people involved resulting in a crisis situation. If as a disaster movie per se it has its shortcomings, in this respect it is a vital one.
Footnote: Before anyone says anything— I’m very well aware that there is a specific genre significance to the casting of this film, but I’m saving commentary on that point for what I consider a more appropriate time. That is all…
This review is for Part 2 of the B-Masters’ 20th anniversary celebration!