Monday, December 10, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Flat Top" (1952)

Back when I was young and foolish and hadn't yet been turned on to classic movies, "Flat Top" is exactly the sort of film I had in mind when I disdainfully sniffed about stiff, dull storytelling of yesteryear. Having come a long way and watched thousands of old flicks since my teenage days, I can safely say that this is a truly terrible movie, no matter what the vintage.

Sterling Hayden could be a dynamic, mesmerizing film presence when cast in the right role. The actor was rather contemptuous of his own career, dismissing movie stars as overpaid wastes. Clearly he was not challenged by his part in the 1952 action/drama set aboard a World War II aircraft carrier. Hayden delivers his lines in flat, stentorian cadences that seem to suggest he doesn't give a damn what you think.

The tale is a familiar one. A cagey war veteran is put in charge of training and leading a bunch of green neck pilots into battle against the Japanese. The group of newcomers, another bunch of the "swell guys" of disparate backgrounds so common to war pictures, are initially put off by their by-the-book commander. The #2 guy, who believes in treating the underlings like friends, continually pushes back against the iron fist of the big kahuna.

Ultimately, though, the rank-and-file learn that the head man's disposition was the right one all along, and they are turned into a solid fighting unit where everyone works as part of a team. The film ends with the #2, now a devotee of his skipper's harsh methods, being promoted to the top spot. We even are gifted with a bit where the resident hot dog of the group, who found himself grounded on his first day aboard ship for waiving off his signalman, replicates the exact same scenario with a new recruit.

I guess what I find most objectionable about this type of moviemaking is that it's so utterly predictable. Five minutes in, you know exactly how the rest of the story will go. You can almost even pick which of the swell guys will be the ones to buy it in the skies -- the budding poet, the guy with the guitar, the nice one everyone likes, etc.

Richard Carlson plays the #2 guy, and other notable cast members include William Schallert, Keith Larsen, William Phipps and John Bromfield.

The other big failing of "Flat Top" is the action scenes, which play out like a litany of grainy stock footage intermixed (badly) with studio shots of the actors in cockpits. Back in the day it was probably deemed exciting to include actual footage from aerial dogfights and naval strafing runs. But it's clear that the action was edited around the available shots -- some of which are repeated twice or more -- rather than trying to create a seamless, plot-driven sequence

Believe it or not, this film was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing. Times change, as do standards, I hope.

Most laughable is whenever a plane begins a deep descent or ascent -- director Lesley Selander simply rotates the camera clockwise or counterclockwise to match the corresponding action. And when a pilot dies, it always transpires in the exact same way: a bloom of bullet holes appear in the glass of his canopy, the actor closes his eyes and tilts his head backward, before slumping over, and the camera rotating us into a supposed dive of death.

Watching "Flat Top," I know how they felt.

1 star out of four

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