Sunday 14 June 2009

The Spirit of St Louis (1957)

Director: Billy Wilder
Star: James Stewart

In 1927, air mail pilot Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly across the Atlantic solo, a massive achievement and one that did a good deal to further the age of flight, even if it didn't begin it the way this film claims. He flew from Roosevelt Field in New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris, a distance of 3610 miles that took him 33 hours and 30 minutes. Such are the facts and they're powerful enough to stand on their own. For the story behind the flight it took Billy Wilder and James Stewart, and while that sounds like a great combination, it doesn't hold up to much background checking.

Billy Wilder was already a legendary film director in 1957, with three Oscars to his name and a long string of classics behind him including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17. For those a little less mindful of the same old films that make every list of the greatest American movies, he had a bunch of those too: lesser known classics like The Lost Weekend and Ace in the Hole. He didn't make too many films but the ones he did make were memorable ones with precious few exceptions. Yet whatever style he lent his name and talents to, he'd never made a biopic until this one and he never made one again.

James Stewart was no minor name either; he'd won his Oscar for 1940's The Philadelphia Story, by popular opinion making up for his miss the year before for Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He was one of the biggest stars in cinema, by anyone's reckoning, with a filmography full of titles like Rear Window, Harvey and Destry Rides Again; The Shop Around the Corner, Winchester '73 and It's a Wonderful Life. The catch is that Lindbergh was only 25 when he made his historic flight, but Jimmy Stewart was 47 when he made this film, only a month away from 50 when it was released and of all the stars in Hollywood, he was the one who always seemed older than he really was.

The way this film has it, the story begins with Lindbergh crashing out of the sky in a blizzard and finishing his air mail delivery on the train. A fellow passenger, a suspender salesman of all things, laughs at Lindbergh's profession and can't believe that commercial air flight is even remotely viable. As an example he cites the front page of his newspaper which details an attempt by a couple of fliers to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first successful flight across the Atlantic. They got about ten feet above the ground and crashed out.

As time goes by, others crash out too and they generally die in the process. But Lindbergh wants in on the race to be the first, because he has that pioneer spirit and believes utterly that the attempt has to be made and to keep being made until someone succeeds. He's utterly determined that that someone be him. He manages to convince a group of bankers to finance him to the tune of $15,000, the cost of buying the plane he's planning to use, only to find out that the company that makes it is happy to sell him one but only if they provide the pilot for the historic flight.

Of course he doesn't take them up on the offer, which proved a terrible loss for them but a great decision for him. Instead he ended up in the aerodrome of Ryan Air, not the famous budget airline of recent years but a San Diego outfit rather less slick than the first choice. This bunch have a dog running around the floor and an owner who he finds cooking sand dabs with an oxy-acetylene torch. What they have is the same vision that he does and they immediately feel a kindred spirit. They design and build the Spirit of St Louis from scratch in 63 days, the name that made the history books, became the title of Lindbergh's autobiography and eventually this film.

I think what makes this film special is that it genuinely creates tension, something that is the last thing I'd have ever expected; after all the heart of the film is a 33 hour flight primarily over water. I've made that flight myself, as a passenger, and it's awe inspiring for about five minutes and boring as heck for the rest of the way, and that's speaking as someone with a couple of books to keep me company; Lindbergh has a fly and a couple of sandwiches. And of course we know precisely how the whole thing ends. Lindbergh succeeds in his flight, makes history and lives to talk about it. If he didn't, we'd never have heard of him and nobody would have made this film.

But somehow Jimmy Stewart makes us feel like he's a dynamic driven young man who just might not make it through and needs the encouragement of we couch potatoes. He sets off with an awesomely understated speech: 'Well I guess I might as well go.' he says, and nearly loses in his attempt before he even reaches the trees at the end of the runway, attempting a takeoff in poor weather from the New York mud. This scene is a masterpiece of tension, even though we know that there's precisely no chance of it not turning out as expected. That's good filmmaking. And our Reader's Digest condensed version of the next 33½ hours has him staying awake by talking to a fly, icing up over the Arctic, even falling asleep and heading round and round in circles.

Lindbergh came close to failure a few times, pulling through sometimes by luck and sometimes by skill, often by both. Once across the ocean he manages to locate his whereabouts by identifying the shape of the coastline around him on the maps that he brought along for the ride. Luckily he didn't leave those behind like most things, down to his toothbrush. He navigates from the coast of Ireland to the Paris air field by dead reckoning. Now this was obviously an amazing accomplishment, which is why it sometimes feels like a pulp adventure, but it's well shown here.

The boring parts are skipped over, as you might expect, by some constructive scriptwriting that takes us back to Lindbergh's life and evolution as an aviator in flashbacks. It's clever work, but there's a massive drop off once the Spirit of St Louis touches ground. After an hour of build up to the flight, there's about thirty seconds of relief before the end of the film. This is such a sudden finish that it takes us utterly by surprise and not in a good way. I wonder why, because there are about half a dozen little stories that could easily have been given a nice feelgood completion at this point and they're all utterly ignored which is bizarrely surprising.

All in all, it's a good film but a flawed one that continues a low point in Billy Wilder's career. Of course given that this is Billy Wilder we're talking about, a low point is still higher than most director's high points, but I was underwhelmed by Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch and there are obvious flaws in this one (oh my, that terrible CGI fly, or whatever passed for CGI in 1957). Yet that leaves only one gap left for me, Love in the Afternoon, before Wilder found his power again with a string of some of the best American films ever made: Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.

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