Humans weren’t made to fly, hence our fascination with air travel. While still offering a little thrill on every take off (or chill if the thought of flying 30,000ft above the ground in a metal canister doesn’t do it for you), the process has become much more commonplace, almost an assembly line experience. Harking back to the days when this was all a novelty and airport security rarely came with full cavity searches, Out of the Clouds follows the lives of those in and around London Airport (now Heathrow). Tepid in its dramatic endeavours, the film, made in 1955, works better as a glimpse back into the receding past.
Early on a host of characters are introduced. There’s faintly dubious playboy pilot Gus (Anthony Steel), unhappy grounded counterpart Nick (Robert Beatty), a whirlwind romancing Jewish couple Bill (David Knight) and Leah (Margo Lorenz), and pessimistic Captain Brent (James Robertson Justice). They meander through various sub-plots as planes come and go, fog descends and new relationships form.
None of it offers much in the way of entertainment. The most egregious example is Bill and Leah’s romance. Meeting for all of five minutes in the restaurant where he’s off to Israel to dig for water and she’s heading to New York to marry an older fiancé, they find themselves kissing passionately when they next encounter. It’s such a whirlwind, you could blink and miss it. The only story offering any substance is Nick’s. Grounded a year ago, and now duty officer at the airport, he’s desperate to get back in the air. It’s often through his eyes that the workings of the airport unfold, director Basil Dearden sending him scampering off to deal with problems that range from low-visibility landings to stranded parakeets.
No great shakes in the narrative stakes, there’s something undeniably captivating about air travel circa 1955. Nowadays, Heathrow is a giant warehouse teeming with people and shops. Flights roll out mechanically with no break to breathe. Here, there’s only a small waiting area, and everyone is sent off to the restaurant in-between flights. The duty officer can oversee everything, and staff take the time to help passengers personally. Security concerns were basically non-existent then, something that’s hard to fathom now. One jaded customs officer (Bernard Lee) occasionally checks bags, while a thin red cord is all that separates the side of the restaurant where those that haven’t gone through immigration must remain.
Out of the Clouds is best viewed as an historical record of a time much changed. The intertwining stories veer between unbelievable and dull, sometimes both in the case of an Egyptian smuggling strand. But this is what film can do better than other forms. It’s a window into a Britain only ten years out of World War II, and that alone makes it worth viewing.
Out of the Clouds is released on DVD on 13th July. Extras include an introduction by film historian Charles Barr.
Director: Basil Dearden
Stars: Anthony Steel, Robert Beatty, David Knight
Runtime: 88 min