Friday, September 13, 2013

Forced Landing (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Forced Landing, a truly weird 1941 movie from Paramount’s “B” production team of William Pine and William Thomas (though the version we were watching was a TV reissue from something called “Screencraft Pictures,” which cut their own logo in during the opening credits and thus messed up a potentially powerful sequence in which the credits were supposed to be superimposed over the image of a burning plane). The film begins ahead of the credits — an unusual effect for 1941 — and shows a plane catching fire in mid-air and its pilot making a (you guessed it) forced landing; he manages to get his plane down and escape from the burning wreckage, only to be shot by a mystery man we see only from behind. Then we get the credits, and then a title establishing the setting as somewhere called “Mosaque,” supposedly an island nation in the South Pacific but actually made up from Paramount’s standing sets of Latin American scenes and populated with a weird assortment of character actors doing a mad mélange of “ethnic” voices, from Latin American to Russian to Asian to just about everything else. The star is Richard Arlen, playing Dan Kendall, an American pilot who’s been hired by the military government that rules Mosaque to fly in what little they have of an air force — only when he arrives he’s told that he’s being transferred to Mosaque’s civilian air transport. This discomfits him because the last two pilots who’ve taken up Mosaque’s civilian transport planes have both disappeared — one of them was Petchnikoff (Harold Goodwin), the man who recruited Dan and whom we saw doing his forced landing and getting shot in the pre-credits sequence.

One of Mosaque’s more colorful inhabitants is Andros Banchek (J. Carrol Naish, attempting to do all the accents suggested by the character’s name), who’s supposedly an outlaw and a bandit but is really a revolutionary leader trying to overthrow Mosaque’s military government. Dan also has a comic-relief mechanic, Christmas (Mikhail Rasumny, obviously channeling Akim Tamiroff), and he’s ready to bail on the whole Mosaque job until he meets and instantly falls in love with Johanna Van Deuren (a young and genuinely pretty Eva Gabor in her film debut, playing an odd cross between Ingrid Bergman and Sonja Henie) even though she’s the fiancée of Col. Jan Golas (Nils Asther), the right-hand man to Mosaque’s military leader. Needless to say, Col. Golas is the real baddie; though ostensibly part of the government he’s actually attempting to stage a coup of his own and freeze both his fellow junta members and the rebels out of power. To do this he’s determined to sabotage the construction of a fort —which he accomplishes by blowing up the planes that are supposed to be carrying the gold to pay the workers who are building it. Only the supposed “gold” boxes really contain bombs that blow up the planes in mid-air — something Dan fortuitously realizes when Johanna stows away in the cargo hold of his plane and notices the box emitting smoke — and the film ends with Golas dead, his co-conspirators executed, the government offering an amnesty to the rebels and Dan returning to the U.S. with Johanna as his new bride.

Forced Landing isn’t much of a film — and one could tell that screenwriters Maxwell Shane and Edward Churchill (no relation, I presume) were trying to thread the needle on this one, drawing on World War II for plot material as much as they could get away with without pissing off (and pissing away) the audience in a still largely isolationist country — but it’s well written and imaginatively directed by Gordon Wiles, who along with cinematographer John Alton throws the whole armamentarium of film noir — shadowy chiaroscuro lighting, oblique angles and the like — at a story that doesn’t have the moral ambiguity of real noir but benefits from the atmospherics anyway. It’s also nice to see that Eva Gabor wasn’t always a caricature, though Evelyn Brent (identified in the official credits as “Housekeeper” and by as “Brunet Who Turns In Andros”) was so minimally present in the film that I missed her almost completely, a sorry fate for the actress who had preceded Marlene Dietrich as Josef von Sternberg’s favorite and had turned in similarly subtle, understated performances in his films.