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Here's an interesting oddity, a movie from 1952 that shows what a clever producer can do with next to nothing in the way of resources. Walter Mirisch had been fighting the odds at Monogram for at least six years, turning out solid genre "Bs" and profitable series product, such as Bomba, the Jungle Boy. The most ambitious producer on the lot, Mirisch would try everything, even 3D, before becoming an executive producer for the 'upscale' Monogram product being released under the Allied Artists banner.
Every studio made WW2 combat dramas, and the shows with exemplary scripts, direction or stars had a chance at the box office. Mirisch decided to make his aircraft carrier saga Flat Top in color, which would give it an edge over similar pictures such as Warners' Task Force. All of the movies about the Pacific War had access to the same Navy aerial combat footage, and only some of it was in color. Most of the dramatic dogfight and strafing/bombing footage was from 16mm Kodachrome cameras operated by the pilots themselves, or in some cases triggered whenever the planes' guns were fired. To make 1944's documentary The Fighting Lady, enlargement separations from the actual Kodachrome masters were made, for Technicolor printing.
Mirisch secured access to plenty of color stock footage of this kind, but pricey Technicolor lab work and printing was far beyond a Monogram budget. He turned instead to the CineColor process, which used only two emulsions instead of three -- red and blue. In (at least one form of) Cinecolor, the two emulsions were on opposite sides of the acetate film stock. Focusing could be an issue, but original Cinecolor prints didn't fade. With access granted to film a few scenes (mostly rear-screen plates) on a real aircraft carrier, Flat Top was a going proposition. For a Monogram price Walter Mirisch delivered a color feature packed with authentic combat thrills. (More on Cinecolor, below.)
Writer Steve Fisher had worked with Mirisch before on a couple of noir thrillers, his specialty. His story for Flat Top is the standard telling of how inexperienced officers are tested and tempered in a combat situation. From the deck of an older aircraft carrier flying jet support missions in Korea, Commander Dan Collier (Sterling Hayden) remembers his experience as a Navy aviator leading a fighter squadron on a similar flat top, back during the 1944 campaign to retake the Philippines. Collier is tough on his top Lieutenant Joe Rodgers (Richard Carlson) for failing to run the squadron at the proper level of efficiency. Collier grounds flier Barney Oldfield (Keith Larsen) for ignoring a wave-off signal during a deck landing. He criticizes Rodgers for wanting to be a pal to his men instead of their leader, and upbraids the fliers for talking on the radio during combat. When ordered to decoy an enemy flight and delay fighting, Rodgers instead engages them in battle, and is told by Collier that he's not good enough to do his job right. The men grow more resentful of their C.O. They also become superstitious about their good luck, because they haven't lost a single flier. Collier reminds them that the missions they've flown so far have been turkey shoots without opposition -- and sure enough, they finally come up against a formidable number of Japanese Zeros. Who will make it out alive? Thanks to a spirited cast and direction, Flat Top breaks free of the criticism directed against Monogram -- it would have been fully worthy of an Allied Artists logo. Steve Fisher's screenplay isn't Shakespeare but it fleshes out the interplay between the fliers and their commanders without resorting to exaggerated theatrics. When it's sentimental -- as with a commercially required cutaway to the home front, to see Mrs. Collier (Phyllis Coates) with Dan's newborn son -- it's not mawkish. Sterling Hayden is at the top of his game, coming off as authoritative and firm, without shouting or acting unprofessional. He's simply trying to get his fliers to follow the rules.
Richard Carlson must have been experiencing dejá vu, as his character arc is almost identical to that of the Marine he plays in Retreat, Hell! of the same year. His Lt. Rodgers is a nice guy who would like to see the squadron run like a sports team, with everybody having a good time. The other fliers are a nicely chosen bunch of actors, most of whose careers would be limited to secondary supporting roles. Singer-flyer Red Kelley is William Phipps, a noted stage actor who has small roles in literally dozens of pictures at this time. He has the leading role in Arch Oboler's modest Five, the first post- atomic war movie. Ensign McKay is beefy John Bromfield, who did the Bossa Nova with Esther Williams and became a casualty of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Todd Karns plays Judd, a flyer that wants to become a lawyer. Karns' career didn't go far but he'll forever be known as George Bailey's brother in It's a Wonderful Life. And the most prolific young supporting player of the '50s plays the 'flying poet' Ensign Longfellow. William Schallert acted in small parts in a different movie practically every week for a decade.
Also in there pitching are Walter Coy as an officer up the chain of command; Coy plays Ethan Edwards' brother in The Searchers. Jack Larson (Jimmy Olson of The Adventures of Superman TV show) and Dave Willock are easy to spot, while James Best and Alvy Moore are not.
Director Lesley Selander must have worked from a fairly rigid shooting plan, with little camera movement. Flat Top cleverly restricts its actors to scenes below decks, in some good (presumably rented) sets. When they come up on deck a lot of rear-projection is put to use (and in some cases, traveling mattes?). We never see the fliers climb into their planes; the picture instead dissolves to them in flight, sitting in their mockup cockpits. Sincere acting and the solid presence of Sterling Hayden and Richard Carlson sell the movie's overall storyline.
War movie fans like Flat Top because there's a lot of battle action using very clear combat footage, edited for clarity -- editor William Austin was nominated for an Oscar (Correction thanks to reader William P. Huelbig). The editors take a few liberties, repeating several shots and showing air-to-air gunnery footage when planes are supposedly hit by anti-aircraft fire. But editor William Austin uses longer sections of action often cut down to nothing elsewhere. In particular is a real shot of a Japanese plane (probably a Kamikaze but not identified as such) that seems to fly through a solid curtain of concentrated fire, until it finally blows up and falls into the sea. It's one of those amazing shots in which there appear to be 5,000 flak bursts in the air and shell hits churning up the water, all at the same time. With so many tons of lead and steel ammo being thrown at the enemy, the ship must ride appreciably higher in the water after an engagement like that.
The movie keeps things uncomplicated and lets the images and good audio mix do the work -- combat fans will not be disappointed. At the end of the show, Navy continuity and the martial tradition are upheld when the story returns again to the Korean War. The enemy and the hardware are new, but the fighting is the same. Flat Top sticks to a 'just the facts' battle plan and comes up a likeable, accomplished war movie. 1
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Flat Top looks great, with a sharp & clean image and particularly good audio. The disc is also a good demo of a perfectly preserved and well-transferred example of the Cinecolor process, which few of us have seen. Many movies billed in Cinecolor are actually "SuperCinecolor", which was filmed on ordinary Eastman color stock and then printed in a modified 3-color process. That process rendered interesting but less flexible color tones than the more accurate Technicolor and Eastmancolor.
But that's another story. Flat Top in Cinecolor ran two strips of film through the camera, filtered for red and blue, and has no yellows or greens. That leaves all skin tones more or less the same reddish tone, and everything else has to manage for itself. Khaki uniforms look fine, as do all the light bluish ship interiors. As they're mostly blue as well, the Navy planes look good, but the green Mitsubishi Zeroes come off as black. And if anything is red, well, think neon red -- lit dials in radarscopes, the meatball insignia on enemy planes, blood, etc. Most of the time the illusion of a full range of hues is sort-of there. Some weird effects include battleship guns that appear to blast out red smoke, and sunset shots of the aircraft carrier that glows red as if it just came out of a steel furnace. The movie never looks colorized, which is very good. Every once in a while a stock shot appears with fairly blah colors, but the contrast is such that I don't think that B&W footage was doctored with filters.
All and all it's an interesting color scheme. I assume that cameraman Harry Neumann and art director David Milton followed some kind of Cinecolor crib sheet when choosing colors for uniforms and insignia -- just remember, no yellow and no green. They didn't have to worry very long, because the falling cost of Eastmancolor prints soon put the Cinecolor and SuperCinecolor processes out of business.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flat Top Blu-ray rates:
1. A point of comparison is the Howard Hughes/Nicholas Ray RKO film from the previous year, Flying Leathernecks. It has bona fide Technicolor, a big budget, and it's a bore. The dramatics between its two capable stars John Wayne and Robert Ryan are so badly judged that Wayne comes off as the far superior actor.
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