After watching Out of the Clouds, I am ready to declare that the unsung hero of the 1950s stretch of my Ealing marathon is currently Sid James. This is not to back away from my belief that Mervyn Johns is the strongest and most varied actor across these 95 films, or to take anything away from the comic performance genius of Alec Guinness, but to note that, despite often appearing for less than five minutes per film, James steals whole sequences with a resigned sigh, world-weary shrug, or bitter one-liner.
While this ability would, obviously, be put to great use in the later Carry On... series, it does help to puncture the occasionally pompous tone of several of Ealing's 1950s films. If you don't believe me, I suggest rewatching The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), The Square Ring (1953), The Rainbow Jacket (1954), or The Shiralee (1957) to see what I mean.
That's not to say that James' blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in this film is the best thing about Out of the Clouds - he's a gambler eyeing up the potential insurance payout if his wife (Barbara Leake) dies while flying - but that it sets an early comic tone in this broad airport drama that flutters uncertainty between drama and comedy throughout. James' character is a brief portrait of one of the many people passing through the airport: Leah Rosch (Margo Lorenz) is in transit to New York where she's marrying a man she doesn't love; American Bill Steiner (David Knight) is going to Israel to make his fortune; an older lady (Marie Lohr) who swears by sleeping tablets for airplane travel; and her put-upon companion (Esma Cannon). On the other side, we meet a range of airport staff: cocky pilot Gus Randall (Anthony Steel) who sleeps around and engaged in borderline illegal activities; duty officer Nick Milbourne (Robert Beatty) wants to get his pilot's licence back so he can get back into the air; cabin crew member Penny Henson (Eunice Grayson), in love with Nick and lusted after by Gus; experienced pilot Brent (James Robertson Justice) who has mechanical problems with the planes; customs officer Steve (Bernard Lee) who suspects Gus of smuggling et al.
The film confidently weaves its narrative threads around this disparate group of characters: Rosch and Steiner are (separately) on planes manned by Gus, Brent and Penny; Nick's decisions allow them to spend an evening together; Gus' pass at Penny reveals her feelings for Nick; Nick's failure to pass a physical actually pushes him and Penny together. Basil Dearden's direction and control is solid, prioritising the story but also throwing in some stylistic quirks that raises its creative game: a great 'aircraft-in-trouble' sequence, with Brent's plane being talked down in heavy fog from the emergency control base, a room shrouded in black and lit only by the green and red tones of the instruments and equipment; a series of images of foggy London landscapes wreathed in unnatural yellow and orange tones; and a series of long tracking shots through the main terminal hall at London Airport (modelled closely on the real hall at Heathrow).
Like all portmanteau films in Ealing's back catalogue, sections of the film work better than others, but this makes the error of opting for happy endings to all the stories (unlike the enjoyably chaotic train crash in Train of Events (1949) or the never-ending dream of 1945s Dead of Night). Therefore, the film creates psychologically interesting characters in Rosch and Steiner (that engage with post-war issues around the treatment of Jews in Britain, and the creation of Israel) but then allows their unlikely whirlwind romance to linger too long and then end happily. Equally, the fun of Steel's Gus Randall remains his morally grey playboy status, not his last minute conversion to the forces of good when he foils an international drug smuggling racket. The nanny-ish qualities of Ealing feel at the fore here, particularly when Randall then talks about settling down, and asks for advice from the more maternal Mrs Malcolm (Isabel Dean).
Those quirks aside, there remains a lot to enjoy here: although I wasn't a fan of his early Ealing performances, Beatty is strong here as the put-upon Milbourne. Performing the character's desperation to get his pilot's wings back isn't much of a challenge, but the struggle Milbourne goes through when he realises he is a born leader to the crew on the ground is more subtle, but nicely played. The film uses colour well throughout, particularly in the sequences listed about but also picking out characters and narrative situations - such as the 'thin red line' of a rope that separates transit passengers from 'Britain' but which introduces Leah and Bill. And, although not my thing, any airplane or airport fetishists will be overjoyed with the numerous shots of 1950s Heathrow and the various aircraft that flew from the airport.
[Out of the Clouds is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, we're going back (almost) to the start, as we raise a glass to Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)...