Basically Sam Katzman's low-budget answer to The High and the Mighty (1955), Crash Landing (1958) is an entertaining if B-movie variation of the John Wayne - William A. Wellman blockbuster with an almost identical story. Crash Landing was one of five Fred F. Sears-directed features released in 1958 - a pretty astounding achievement when you consider that he died in 1957. Sears, a former actor, literally worked himself into a fatal heart attack at age forty-four. Despite a very modest budget, probably in the $175,000-$350,000 range versus The High and the Mighty's $1,500,000, Crash Landing is reasonably engrossing with a genuinely suspenseful climax.
Part of Sony's Columbia Classics line of "Screen Classics By Request" DVD-Rs, Crash Landing looks sensational, the 1.85:1 black and white production given a bright and nearly flawless 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation. A trailer complete with narration and text and also 16:9 enhanced is tossed in as an extra feature.
The lives of 32 passengers and crew aboard Transatlantic Flight 627 are in jeopardy when two of its four engines flame out en route to New York from Lisbon. Most of the film's first half is told in flashback, tracing the hours leading up to the disaster. Hard-nosed, autocratic Capt. Steve Williams (top-billed Gary Merrill) has a distant, strained relationship with his wife, Helen (Nancy Davis), and especially his son, Barrie (Kim Charney). Afraid to ride the expensive bicycle his father gave him, Barrie secretly gave it away to a poor friend that wanted it. But rather than show any sympathy, Steve harshly punishes his son in spite of Helen's objections.
At the airport, lonely schoolteacher Bernice Willouby (Irene Hervey) meets retiree Maurice Stanley (Lewis Martin, the doomed clergyman in War of the Worlds) and the two gradually become friendly. Co-pilot John Smithback (Roger Smith) flirts with stewardess Ann Thatcher (Jewell Lain), but she brushes off his advances. Elsewhere, alcoholic board member Calvin Havelick (Hal Torey) is blackmailed into an alliance with cutthroat executive Harrison White (Richard Keith). Steve, meanwhile, admires the way father Phil Burton (John McNamara) gets along with his young boy, Teddy (Robin Warga), who's concerned about the welfare of the family dog, Wilbur, stowed away near the back of the fuselage. Other, less important characters include a Greek (?) Orthodox priest (Friedrich von Ledebur, Moby Dick) and an older Hispanic couple (Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr. and Austrian Celia Lovsky).
As with The High and the Mighty, the drama hinges on the very real possibility of having to ditch in the middle of the ocean, though given the movie's title and the poster art (see above) that's a foregone conclusion. Obviously, Crash Landing isn't nearly as slick nor is it as good as Zero Hour!, the 1957 Paramount film later spoofed as Airplane! (1980) (The IMDb claims Crash Landing and Zero Hour! shared the same airplane interior sets, which is certainly possible.) One curious difference is that in The High and the Mighty, ditching the plane is an absolute last resort, the implication being that chances of surviving the crash and even a few minutes in the water are remote at best. In Crash Landing however, and not just once but several times the crew reassures passengers that "There's nothing dangerous about ditching so long as we keep our heads."
On its own terms, Crash Landing is pretty decent. Despite barely adequate miniature work, crash footage obviously cobbled from somewhere else, and a by-the-numbers script courtesy future TV producer Fred Freiberger, once viewers have reached the climax they've spent sufficient time with the characters to care about their fates a little, and the violent landing and evacuation of the plane is pretty exciting for a little B-movie.
Of the various Grand Hotel-esque mini-dramas, the courtship-by-fire of old maid Bernice and reluctant retiree Maurice is genuinely sweet, and both actors are very good. Merrill and Davis play clichéd parts, though Merrill was always reliable with such world-weary characters. Gary Merrill and Nancy Davis were at the time married respectively to Bette Davis and Ronald Reagan, who appeared in Dark Victory (1939) together. This ought to be good for some sort of trivia question, though I know not what.
Director Sears is better known today for his science fiction and horror films, which include the pretty good The Werewolf, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (both 1956), and the unintentionally hilarious The Giant Claw (1957). But he was no worse than workmanlike, a better-than-average director of actors (doubtless being an actor himself helped), and occasionally inventive. In Crash Landing there's an amusingly-staged montage introducing the passengers and crew, over Sears's own narration, and in one clever wide shot of the Travel Class section, mother Adele Burton (Dayle Rodney) walks her baby up the aisle slyly positioning the infant right into a tight, cute close-up.
The picture does have its share of unintended howlers. Aboard the plane are a pair of empty-headed chorus girls (Joan Bradshaw and Brandy Bryan) who, as the plane is about crash, ask, "What will happen to our luggage?" About the same time, the unbilled wife of middle-aged Ed Wheaton (I. Stanford Jolley) exclaims, "If I'm killed, all right - I just don't want to be crippled!" In another odd bit of scripting, Phil Burton is impressed by the way Steve essentially talks Teddy into letting his beloved dog Wilbur drown. (Spoilers: Fear not, animal lovers. As in The Hindenburg, the dog survives.)
The production cheaps out near the end. Though Katzman sprang for the fuselage and cockpit interior sets, and apparently allowed his actors to be carted all the way to a real airport to crawl over the wing of an actual aircraft, virtually no attempt has been made to visually connect the footage of the passengers scrambling on the wing with them jumping into rubber rafts on the ocean, footage obviously filmed in a backlot pool. Once in the water, the horizon in the distance is lower than the bottom edge of the painted sky. In other words, Katzman was too cheap to fill up the pool!
Video & Audio
Crash Landing looks terrific, a spot-on presentation that's a pleasure to watch. The crisp black and white image is clean with excellent contrast, and the widescreen framing really helps the compositions. The region-free DVD-R disc's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is likewise strong. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes, but no other menu options, save for the lone Extra Feature, an amusing trailer, complete with narration and text.
Though not for everybody, Crash Landing is an amusing, above-average B that's fun for disaster genre fans as well as those, like this reviewer, with an affection for Columbia Picture's B-movie unit and its famously cheapskate overseer, Sam Katzman. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.