Out of the Clouds (1955)
By 1955, Ealing Studios had already established itself as one of Britain’s foremost film production establishments, producing between 1948 and this time some of the country’s best loved films – 1949’s Whiskey Galore!, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets to 1955’s iconic The Ladykillers. A few years before this, however, Ealing gave us the magnificent portmanteau horror film Dead of Night – with segments directed by Basil Dearden, the man who would go on to direct one of the truly great British films, 1961’s Victim. Ealing had something of a reputation for also producing some slight but loving “institutional” films, behind-the-scenes ensemble pieces set at British institutions and providing and anatomical view of their day to day working. Films such as Charles Crichton’s Painted Boats (1945), fondly viewed today as an almost documentary look at Britain’s canals and waterways and Basil Dearden’s own Square Ring, from 1953 and produced by Michael Relph, set in a seedy boxing hall and following the fortunes of various fighters and punters.
Following in this tradition, Relph and Dearden would team up again to bring us 1955’s Out of the Clouds, a dramatic ensemble piece taking us behind the scenes at London Airport during one fog-affected twenty-four hour period. Based loosely on the novel The Springboard by John Fores, Out of the Clouds follows the lives of an eclectic bunch of characters, passengers travelling through (or trying to) and the airport staff whose job it is to ensure they can do so safely and comfortably.
The cast is made up of a few well-known Ealing regulars (Robert Beatty had worked with Dearden before) and a few who would go on to be household names – Sid James in particular pops up in a small but comedic role. Among the passengers we meet Leah Rosch (Margo Lorenz) who is travelling to New York, inetnded to marry a man she doesn’t love; American Bill Steiner (David Knight) who is heading to Israel; an older lady (Marie Lohr) who insists taking tranquillisers is the only way to travel and her put-upon companion (Esma Cannon). Ensuring that all of these journeys go as smoothly as possible we have the airport staff: hotshot pilot Gus Randall (Anthony Steel) who is something of a ladies’ man and who may or may not be smuggling contraband; duty officer Nick Milbourne (Robert Beatty) who desperately wants to get his pilot’s licence back so he can take back to the skies, where he feels he belongs; cabin crew member Penny Henson (Eunice Grayson), forming the obligatory love triangle with Gus and Nick; experienced pilot Brent (James Robertson Justice) who knows when to trust his plane and when to give in to the bad weather and finally customs officer Steve (Bernard Lee) who may just be on to Gus’ illegal activities.
Out of the Clouds uses all of these characters to construct its narrative threads as expository tales telling us how the Airport itself relies on these connections. Rosch and Steiner fall in love after meeting briefly in the transit lounge, each changing their plans drastically, and their story connects us to the complicated relationship between Gus, Brent and Penny, whose story explains to us Gus’ feelings for Penny and her feelings, in turn, for the grounded Nick. Unfortunately, watching these connections being made between passengers and staff, as cogs in a wheel, is far more interesting than watching the cogs themselves. We do get the impression we are watching deliberately blank stereotypes because Dearden instead wants us to rather be watching what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.
Though where they’re doing it is fantastic. With the participation of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, Out of the Clouds’ external scenes were all shot on the runways of Heathrow Airport, or, as it was then, London Airport. This gives the film an incredible sense of place and an authenticity that would otherwise have been lacking altogether. In order to generate the same kind of fictional reality within the airport itself, Out of the Clouds’ interiors were shot on Ealing’s largest ever sets – replicas of Heathrow’s halls and control tower were constructed and look every bit as authentic as Heathrow itself. We are not confined to the airport and its environs however. There is a wonderful sequence, during the long delays because of the fog, in which we see Steiner and Leah taken on a lightning tour of shimmering and ghostly London landmarks by a (perhaps overly helpful and friendly) cabbie – on their way to a pub in the East End (complete with Cockneys providing local colour) we are treated to some fantastic shots of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s shrouded in the night fog.
These couple of flourishes aside, Basil Dearden’s direction is functional, lending the proceedings a soap-opera feel that would later be used so effectively in George Seaton’s 1970 classic, Airport. We are even treated to a couple of airport clichés, deftly handled, such as Brent’s troubled and unsound plane needing to be talked down from the control tower during the heavy fog – lending the film a sense of excitement absent in the interactions between the characters. Modern audiences may find the stilted acting (so prevalent a style at the time – most of the characters talking in a lofty received English accent) slightly odd at first, but it fits the overall tone of the film very well. The performances are excellent bar one failed attempt at comedy involving an unfunnily verbose Indian character in a restaurant, though this is easily overlooked as being rather of its time.
Though this film seems slight and, in many cases, its characters trite and contrived, it is of immense value to modern audiences looking back at what a particular part of the London landscape looked like before modern society and its essential services changed its history forever. The film, like this landscape, looks wonderful too – Paul Beeson’s colour photography crisp and very well balanced. This was something not always achieved in colour films of the time (The Titfield Thunderbolt from just two years earlier was Ealing’s first colour film) and there isn’t the usual stark contrast in colour palettes and quality between the external and internal shots. Taken in this respect, Out of the Clouds becomes a remarkable document of an institution so much a part of modern Britain’s functioning it is easy to forget it is actually founded upon and relies (even today) so heavily on human interactions.
Out of the Clouds was re-released on July 13th in a wonderful digital restoration funded by STUDIOCANAL in collaboration with the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme. This restoration will be a part of the BFI’s Britain on Film project – a series of films chosen for their sense of place and time that resonates with modern Britain and provides us with films that engage with history and define the landscape of Britain and its people.
Extras on the disc include a filmed introduction by Film Historian Charles Barr and the ubiquitous Stills Gallery.
Director: Basil Dearden
Stars: Anthony Steel, Robert Beatty, David Knight
Runtime: 88 min