'No Highway in the Sky' and '5 Fingers'

Wonderfully Civilized Suspense

by Michael Barrett

9 September 2014

Both No Highway in the Sky and 5 Fingers are two excellent examples of post-war Hollywood cinema shot abroad.
 
cover art

No Highway in the Sky

Director: Henry Koster
Cast: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich

US DVD: 30 Jul 2013

cover art

5 Fingers

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux

US DVD: 13 Feb 2014

After World War II, Hollywood studios began making films in England and elsewhere in Europe. Available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives are two such items of the early ‘50s: No Highway in the Sky and 5 Fingers, both wonderfully civilized suspense films.

James Stewart plays perfectly in his element as Theodore Honey, an absent-minded American “boffin” (as the limeys call scientific chaps) testing aircraft metal fatigue in No Highway in the Sky. He’s introduced with bumbling eccentricities, such as forgetting which house he lives in and raising his plain, retiring daughter (Janette Scott) as a lonely genius. It’s all well-played, amusing, and disarming. The suspense begins when he realizes he’s on an airplane that’s about to crash, according to his calculations. He warns the crew and a glamorous movie star (Marlene Dietrich, basically playing herself), and they all await the outcome tensely.
  
More stuff happens after that, as there are really two sources of suspense, but we can’t explain the second without spoiling what happens in the first. If it seems impractical for Honey to be romanced by a movie star, that’s why the writers are smart enough to throw in Glynis Johns as the practical stewardess. The bevy of British characters lending support include Jack Hawkins, Ronald Squire, Niall MacGinniss, Kenneth More, Elizabeth Allen, Wilfred Hyde-White, Felix Aylmer, and Maurice Denham.

This is one of several aerial topics for decorated pilot Stewart (Strategic Air Command, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Flight of the Phoenix). Based on aircraft engineer Nevil Shute’s novel No Highway (the film’s UK title), the tight yet sensitive script is by an illustrious trio of writers, all Oscar-nominated for different projects: R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard, and Alec Coppel. Judging by the novel’s summary on Wikipedia, they made sensible changes to the book’s final act by dropping mystical elements. Even so, many viewers will be reminded of the later Twilight Zone episode about the passenger who’s sure a plane will crash. Since this was a prominent and successful “crash” movie, it’s worth speculating if one story influenced the other.

Imported from Hollywood (after having been imported from Germany), director Henry Koster handles all with the smooth, understated efficiency that also marks the great Georges Périnal’s photography (not forgetting the glamour lights on Dietrich). Koster had just directed Stewart in the hit Harvey; although the two films are quite different, Stewart is still a man in his own befuddled world who happens to be right.

5 Fingers is directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which means it’s dense with elegant, often acid dialogue. Although he’s not credited for the screenplay, which is by Michael Wilson (no slouch either), his wit is all over the thing; it’s not surprising that the writing and direction were nominated for Oscars. The film is based on a non-fiction book by L. C. Moyzisch (played by Oskar Karlweis), who worked with German ambassador Franz von Papen (John Wengraf) in Turkey during WWII and conducted business with a valet who photographed secret documents in the British Embassy.

In the film, that valet, code named Cicero, is called Diello and played with brilliant, magnetic, mercenary savoir-faire by James Mason. This twisty tale is one of the first postwar spy films to focus on an anti-hero, and we’re fascinated by his self-centered calculations. His weakness is his desire for someone far above him, the Countess Staviska (Danielle Darrieux), and their similarities from opposite classes provide the ironies that turn the film into a comedy of manners. In the end, the movie feels less like other spy films than the worldly games of Mankiewicz’ All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa. There happens to be a war going on, but nobody lets it inconvenience them if they can help it. It’s the outer symbol of their ruthless, clueless designs.

Michael Rennie is third-billed as the agent trying to find Cicero, while Walter Hampden plays the British ambassador, whose name has been changed to protect the embarrassed. Norbert Brodine’s photography includes Turkish location work. The prints used for both of these on-demand discs are excellent. For some reason, the package for Highway claims the movie is in color, but it was never a color film. Neither film has any extras except their trailers.

No Highway in the Sky

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5 Fingers

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