In the forthcoming collection Ealing Revisited, Robert Murphy describes The Man in the Sky as a film any national cinema should be proud of. Yet this film is rarely listed among the greats of Ealing's oeuvre, never mind that of British cinema more generally. While I'm not going to summarise Murphy's opinion here (you'll have to read the book for that), I do want to consider how the film sits within broader ideas of what Ealing Studios were capable of, and whether that shifted in the final 'Ealing Films' made in association with MGM in 1956-8.
One of the most striking changes to this film is the shift out of the London streets and into a more suburban landscape: here, the new houses and outskirts of Wolverhampton. Rather than the bomb-strewn locations of Hue & Cry (1947) or The Blue Lamp (1950), these are clean and character-less avenues; in place of the community and support of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) or Lease of Life (1954), we have an absent neighbour, a local laundrette and a shop selling flying saucers and spaceship toys. That is not to say there is no community in the film, but the workers of Conway Aero Manufacturing (who arguably best fill that role) are literally onlookers, commentators, always outside and never part of the drama. That community is also a professional one, to which John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) belongs, but which has little place for his wife Mary (Elizabeth Sellars). In that sense, the film mirrors the work/home life split seen in Ealing's other 1956 Hawkins film, The Long Arm (1956).
The storyline here is simple but potent: John Mitchell is a test pilot at Conway's, which is going to go bankrupt if they don't secure a lucrative new contract. During a routine test of the new plane, an engine fire causes Mitchell to order everyone to parachute to safety, but he decides to stay onboard, knowing that losing the plane will definitely sink Conway. In an Earthbound precursor of Apollo 13, the ground crew and Mitchell struggle to find a way for him to land the plane safely. Mitchell circles the field for 30 minutes; below, his wife and colleagues watch and wait...
The first element that is striking about the film is its desire to tell the story in real time. The first and third are partially compressed, but the second act is wholly in real time, as Mitchell circles the airfield. (dialogue exchanges and well-placed clocks attest to the real time element) Hawkins is particularly strong here: isolated in the plane set, and with only occasional (and often one-sided) dialogue exchanges, he has to convey Mitchell's stubborn, scared and uncertain emotions, and convince the audience the character would be committed enough to see this unlikely flight through. Given the brisk nature of the visual storytelling in the opening of the film (in 12 minutes we learn about the Mitchell family, meet their children, understand the financial pressure they're under, meet the team at Conway, get introduced to seven or eight supporting characters, and then we're up in the plane), director Crichton pulls that pace back, and allows the film to linger on Hawkins' face (or one of the other characters), to rely on performance to propel the story along.
The second striking element is the performance of Elizabeth Sellars, whose Mary Mitchell is as close to breaking point in the domestic sphere as her husband is up in the air. This may be billed as a story about the man in the sky (my own narrative recap above focused almost wholly on this aspect), but it is clear that the woman in the house is also holding an increasingly shaky and unwieldy machine together, and the Mitchell marriage becomes the main problem the film has to solve. True, the film initially paints that problem in broad strokes (notably their inability to buy a new dream house), but it continues to cut back to Mary during the airborne drama (of which she is blithely unaware until close to the landing) and emphasises her perspective on the Mitchell's lives. That the marriage is the main issue is also clear given that John's (successful) landing occurs almost 15 minutes before the film ends, with the remaining time largely given over to a Hawkins-Sellars confrontation about his apparently suicidal decision on the plane, and their future life. It is a conversation that can seem one-sided, given John physically and verbally dominates it (Hawkins flirts with playing John as a bully here), but the camera often comes back to Sellar's face while John continues his stern but blustering defence of his decisions (and refutes Mary's belief he wanted to kill himself). Although this ends with John justifying himself and agreeing to buy their dream house, the visual focus on Mary (and her scenes throughout) suggests it remains open-ended, a papering over of the cracks, rather than a long-term solution.
The desire to play the drama through performance as much as dialogue or event, also reveal the visual strengths of the film: Crichton and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe use deep focus shots in places, particularly when shooting the crowds who gather on the airfield (often shooting down from the tower, with characters in fore- and background action clearly in focus); there is a playfulness around some compositions (the crowd running back and forth across the horizontal length of the frame to keep the plane in sight as it goes behind buildings) and a simplicity to others (the plane, isolated in the sky, while everyone stands together on the ground); while they favour a slow zoom into close-up on characters faces to emphasise emotional shifts (including a shot near the end of Hawkins in the bathroom, just after Mary has accused John of not thinking of the family: the frame pushes closer and closer in on him, and we see him snap)
With nice character moments scattered throughout (the reporter who is told this is only a story if the plane crashes, Conway being promised the contract if it lands, the tea ladies who complain no one is buying their tea because they're staring at the sky), and some impressive sound design (the creaking and shrieking noises of the tortured plane make it sound alive in the central sequences), this remains a fascinating film, and one that should be better known among the Ealing canon.
[The Man in the Sky is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, is this Alec Guinness' (and Ealing's) finest hour? Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)...
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