WILLIAM A. WELLMAN FOR THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront
Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window
George Seaton for The Country Girl
Billy Wilder for Sabrina
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
I can honestly say I’ve had no more visceral reaction to a film in this project than I had during the first half-hour of The High and the Mighty. Granted, the reaction was in the form of several bouts of hysterical laughter. I’ve undertaken this quest in part because of the respect I have for all of these films, and I’ve found elements to praise in all of them regardless of how they have aged. Unfortunately, despite the occasional merits in Wellman’s directing, this overstuffed aerial melodrama will never live down the sweeping satire of Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker’s disaster genre spoof Airplane! That film was taking aim at the overripe material provided by The High and the Mighty’s descendants, namely Zero Hour! and the Airport franchise, but it still draws plenty of fertile material from William Wellman’s seminal aerial spectacular. Despite the occasional effective moment and a tense finale that (mostly) snaps into the proper tone, my main takeaway from this film was amazement that they passed it off as straight drama for twenty-five years before someone called them out.
The film fails according to typical pitfalls of 1950s spectaculars (torpid pace, overblown melodrama), but what stood out early in this film was its outright strangeness. It all kicks off with the ham-handed introduction of copilot Dan Garfield (played by John Wayne) and his traumatic past, a direct forerunner to the Ted Stryker storyline in Zero Hour! and later Airplane! But the bizarreness really kicks in with the ensemble. As I indicated, this film serves as a rough prototype for the all-star disaster flicks of the 1970s–though when this film was made, that era was still far off and no major star would sign on to the passenger list, which includes an ambiguously lesbian foreigner, two dopey honeymooners, and a kid whose apparently total sensory deprivation enables him to sleep through the whole ordeal. Despite the stars’ concerns about the small sizes of the parts, when you add twenty of them together the film rather easily swells to two-and-a-half hours (no thanks to the plodding pace set by editor Ralph Dawson). Most of this run time is dedicated to an unwieldy round robin of introductions, interactions, expositions (with several Lost-anticipating flashbacks), brave self-confessions, and closing grace notes. Every character has gets least one big moment, including Jan Sterling’s guilt-ridden bride-to-be, who gets the juiciest scenes; and Claire Trevor, playing strongly to type as the aging good-time girl and consequently pulling off the best performance of the bunch.
I have to assume this was all too much for Wellman to focus on closely, as he was clearly more interested in the halfway credible aerial thriller that unfolds up in the cockpit. On its own, the basic storyline about the imperiled aircraft could make for a compelling suspense thriller, and in these portions Wellman takes care to limit our understanding of the predicament to what the flight crew can see and hear Wellman, of course, was a former WWI fighter pilot himself, and has a decent sense for the logistics and mentality of a midair crisis. Wellman handles the confined space of the plane’s interior very well, and the Howard Hawks-like procedural elements of the survival mission do occasionally redeem the storyline, particularly in the gripping final descent through the fog (cutaways to the mysterious sputtering fireballs issuing from the bad engine, and the pitch-black silhouette of the plan as it approaches touchdown, add a particular sense of atmosphere). It’s also in these parts of the film that Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing score (repeatedly whistled by Wayne’s character) packs its biggest punches, though I have no memory of the Oscar-winning hit song (composed by Tiomkin with Ned Washington’s lyrics) actually being sung. In all, this isn’t a lost cause of a film, but I think I’ll always remember it for the hilarity of the premise.
Unlike Airport and The Towering Inferno, which managed Best Picture nominations but no mention for their directors, The High and the Mighty missed out on a BP nod but earned William Wellman a third and final round in a very formidable Best Director field. The Directors Branch can take pride in many nominations, but perhaps none were as prescient as their choice to reward the old British master for two of his late masterpieces: Psycho in 1960 and Rear Window in this year’s competition. Earning my vote, Hitchcock saw off stiff competition from fifth-time nominee Billy Wilder for the sparkling romance Sabrina, George Seaton (coincidentally, Airport‘s director) for the sober backstage drama The Country Girl, and Elia Kazan, who overcame McCarthy Era ill will to earn his second Best Picture and Best Director wins for the gritty On the Waterfront. Wellman, got my top vote in the 1937 race and second place in the 1949 race, probably finishes at the bottom of this group, while the Directors Branch deserves immense credit for the prescience of rewarding this diabolically clever exercise in suspense and the voyeuristic nature of cinema.