Crowded Sky, The (1960): Joseph Pevney’s Disaster Picture with B-Actors and Cheesy Dialogue

Based on the novel of the same title by Hank Searls, The Crowded Sky is an early sampler of the disaster movie genre, directed by Joseph Pevney.

The Crowded Sky
Crowded sky.jpg

Theatrical release poster

All the elements of what would become a popular movie genre in the 1970s (after Airport) are in place: a large ensemble, melodramatic back stories of the passengers and members of the crew, personal and professional tensions, a malfunctioning radio make that makes it hard to communicate with air traffic control, severe weather, and potential crash or near collision.

The plot cross-cuts between two stories until they (or rather their aircrafts) merge. One the one hand there is a U.S. Navy Lockheed TV-2 jet, the setting of an inter-generational conflict between vet pilot Ephrem Zimbalist Jr., who was once responsible for a crash, and a young and handsome novice (played by the then popular Troy Donahue), who proves more alert than given credit to.

The Navy jet, piloted by Captain Dale Heath (Zimbalist Jr.) and the enlisted man (Donahue), run into trouble as soon as it takes off.  Heath’s radio and navigation system are malfunctioning, there is no way to determine their altitude.

Most of the action, though, is set aboard a commercial airliner carrying a full load of colorful and neurotic passengers, each defined by his/hers worries and problems.

Both Barnett and Heath have their personal crises: Heath is unhappily married to an unfaithful and manipulative wife (Rhonda Fleming) and worries about the welfare of his teenage daughter who wants to move to Washington DC.

Barnett continues to experience professional conflicts with his co-pilot, Mike Rule (John Kerr), who has his own demons, including  a severe “father” problem and a troubled affair with the chief stewardess, Kitty Foster (Anne Francis).

The aircrafts, through errors in their flight path, are on a collision course that the air traffic controllers are unable to avert. When the crash occurs, Heath sacrifices himself, making amends for his past tragedy. The airliner is badly damaged and Louis Capelli (Joe Mantell), the flight engineer is sucked out of the aircraft, while the rest of the passengers fight for their lives.

Miraculously, with one engine destroyed and a wing on fire, Barnett brings the airliner down safely, but accepts responsibility for the collision during the  investigation.  In the happy ending, survivors Mike and Kitty are planning a life together.

Disappointingly, the cheesy dialogue is scripted by Charles Schneee, an otherwise reliable scribe, which doesn’t help the poor direction by Pevney.

John Kerr, who made a better impression in Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy, is good looking but stiff, and the same can be said about the ultra-photogenic Donahue, who was then America’s most popular heartthrob, after making A Summer Place, the year before, opposite Sandra Dee.

Rest of the cast is populated by B-level actors like Fleming, Zimbalist, and Francis, or gifted thespians such as Dana Andrews who were in decline.

Cast

Dana Andrews as Dick Barnett

Rhonda Fleming as Cheryl Heath

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Dale Heath

John Kerr as Mike Rule

Anne Francis as Kitty Foster

Keenan Wynn as Nick Hyland

Troy Donahue as McVey

Joe Mantell as Louis Capelli

Patsy Kelly as Gertrude Ross

Donald May as Norm Coster

Louis Quinn as Sidney Schreiber

Tom Gilson as Rob Fermi

Credits:

Directed by Joseph Pevney
Produced by Michael Garrison
Screenplay by Charles Schnee, based on The Crowded Sky 1960 novel by Hank Searls
Music by Leonard Rosenman
Cinematography Harry Stradling Sr.
Edited by Tom McAdoo

Production and distribution company: Warner Bros

Release date: September 2, 1960

Running time: 105 minutes

Note:

TCM showed the movie on December 1, 2020.