April 1, 1952 (United States), May 26, 1952 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Terence Fisher
Screenplay by John Gilling
Based on the novel Dead on Course by Trevor Dudley-Smith (aka Elleston Trevor) and Packham Webb
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Edited by James Needs
Cinematography by Walter J. Harvey
Robert Beatty as Nick Tolbert
Naomi Chance as Avril Tolbert
Kay Kendall as Alexia LaRoche
Colin Tapley as Inspector Jerry Maxwell
Arthur Lane as Boyd Spencer
Harold Lang as Snell, the blackmailer
Jack Allen as Tniscott
Douglas Muir as Doctor Wilner
Ian Fleming as Pops Tolbert
Larry Taylor as O’Gorman, the henchman
Darcy Conyers as the signals officer
Sheila Raynor as the nurse
Courtney Hope as Mrs. Clarence, hotel tenant
Anthony T. Miles as Sam, the desk clerk
Diane Cilento as Jeannette
Distributed by Lippert Pictures (United States), Exclusive Films (United Kingdom)
Produced by Hammer Film Productions
After the credits, Richard Van Ness (Zachary Scott’s character) opens with a voice-over about Nick Tolbert: “He [Nick] was the sort of guy you couldn’t be mad at for too long, no matter what he said nor what he did. And brother Nick did plenty.” Nick, a pilot for Boyd Spencer Airline, insists on flying out even though a storm is coming. He blackmails Van Ness, his boss and also a pilot, about the fact that Van Ness blacks out every now and then, something that could cost Van Ness his job. Nick flies out, and Van Ness and the radio operator lose contact with him in the storm. The next day, Van Ness flies over the English Channel, but he knows that Nick is lost and won’t be found, in spite of the search going on for him.
Wings of Danger is the title for the film’s release in Great Britain, where the film is set. Dead on Course is the title given to the film for its release in the United States. I am using the title Wings of Danger in this blog post, mostly because the DVD I borrowed used that title.
Jerry Maxwell, a police inspector investigates Nick Tolbert’s death. He talks to Van Ness about smuggling of money and gold between England the rest of Europe. He wants to know if Van Ness is “in the racket.” In his line of work, it’s natural for Maxwell to wonder if Tolbert’s crash and presumed death was an accident or not. Tolbert never answered his radio, apparently even before the storm started. Was he dead at the controls? Maxwell also wants to use Van Ness to get to Boyd Spencer, owner of the airline, via Spencer’s girlfriend Alexia. Boyd and everyone associated with the airline are potential suspects in the smuggling and in Tolbert’s murder. The remainder of the film unravels the mystery surrounding Tolbert’s death and the smuggling happening under the auspices of the Boyd Spencer Airline.
It was a real treat for me to see Zachary Scott playing a good guy. I have seen him as Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce probably dozens of time, and he is fantastic as a smarmy hanger-on. But he’s also fantastic playing a decent sort trying to help his friends and the police. He also shows some flair playing the straight man and in delivering some witty lines in Wings of Danger. Here are a couple of examples:
◊ Alexia, Boyd Spencer’s girlfriend, is attracted to Van Ness. He shows up at her rooms to purchase dollars for someone else as a way to set up a trap to discover who is smuggling what. Alexia can arrange it but she tries to seduce Van Ness, too.
• Alexia: “You really keep yourself on ice. Don’t you, Van?
• Van Ness: “Do I?”
• Alexia: “Don’t you ever melt?”
• Van Ness: “Yes. Sometimes. In the dark.”
• Alexia: “Well, that’s fine. Tomorrow at ten o’clock. In the dark.”
◊ Van Ness invites someone named Snell to his rooms so he can interrogate him. Snell is blackmailing Van Ness’s girlfriend Avril Tolbert; Snell is also doing some work for Boyd Spencer. During the interrogation, Van Ness is interrupted by a phone call from Avril. While Van Ness is on the phone, Snell launches a glass vase at Van Ness.
• Avril: “What was that?”
• Van Ness: “What?”
• Avril: “That noise.”
• Van Ness: “I was just putting out a cigarette.”
• Avril: “But I heard a crash.”
• Van Ness: “Well, you see, it was a very heavy cigarette, one of those Turkish blends. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
So there is a little bit of humor to go with all the intrigue, and it works. I quickly forgot about Monte Beragon and became engrossed in Van Ness’s story.
I was also pleased by the fact that Wings of Danger had a couple of surprises for me. I am always impressed when a film, novel, or short story has a plot twist or two to surprise me.