Monday, 20 February 2012

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

The Night My Number Came Up is a 1955 Ealing Studios release, produced by Michael Balcon and is the directorial debut of Leslie Norman, father of Barry. The story is reputedly based on real events in the life of Air Marshal Victor Goddard.  The film has a Far Eastern setting, alternating between Hong Kong and Japan, and this helps to epitomise the clash between the mystical and occult world of the orient and the rational, twentieth century modernity of the West which lies at the heart of The Night My Number Came Up. The battle between the ancient wisdom of Chinese civilisation which remains shot through with inscrutable  levels of superstition and the rationality and technical expertise of the British form the film’s main dichotomy.  It is left for the audience to determine which emerges victorious at the film’s conclusion.

The film begins with Michael Hordern’s character Commander Lindsay determinedly seeking an audience with Hugh Moxey’s Wing Commander, who is co-ordinating the search for an RAF transport plane which has gone missing over Japan with a number of VIP’s on board.  Commander Lindsay is adamant that the search be concentrated over one of the outlying Japanese islands, miles from the plane’s last reported sighting; moreover he refuses to explain to the Wing Commander his reasons for this insistence, asserting that he would have him thrown out if he acquainted him with his reasons.  Only when the Air Traffic Controller reports that a ship has reported sighting an aircraft in this region does the Wing Commander agree, against his better judgement.  Lindsay agrees to share the truth should the search prove successful.

The Night My Number Came Up is largely told in a prolonged flashback, and concerns the arrival in Hong Kong of Air Marshall Hardie (Michael Redgrave) and his aide-de-camp Flight Lieutenant McKenzie, played by Denholm Elliott.  McKenzie is a somewhat tense, tetchy character, who, it soon emerges was a Battle of Britain ace who lost his nerve big time in 1940 and who has only flown since as a passenger, and naval officer Commander Lindsay.  The officers have flown into Hong Kong on a Douglas DC-3 Dakota, and are due to fly out again shortly to Tokyo, on an unspecified mission, this time on board a Liberator.  They arrive at Kai Tak airport, having endured a somewhat hair-raising landing on the notoriously short runway 13, and agree to have dinner the following evening at the house of Owen Robinson, a colonial civil servant who has, by his own admission, so far failed to advance as far as he would have liked.

The air of mystery which has been engendered by Lindsay’s enigmatic approach to the search in the opening sequence is intensified by the shots of Hong Kong in the middle of the Ghost Festival which follow, and which preface the dinner party at Robertson’s house.  Robertson explains that the festival is one where the Chinese celebrate the return to earth of their departed ancestors, and lay on elaborate banquets for them, with empty seats and full plates, symbolising the continuity of the living and the dead.  It appears to the other guests as a fascinating display of local colour, but Robertson himself is almost unjustifiably caustic and dismissive of what he terms the medieval superstition persisting in the culture of such a long-lasting civilisation, contrasting it by association with his own pragmatism and level-headedness.  In the light of what transpires later, this is well worth noting.

The talk of superstition and omens leads to a prompting by some of the guests for Commander Lindsay to reveal the details of a strange dream he has had the night before.  Lindsay is initially reluctant but eventually reveals his dream: passengers were flying on a Dakota – thirteen of them including the crew – and the plane gets lost in bad weather over Northern Japan, eventually enduring a fatal crash landing on the beach of an isolated island fishing village.  Lindsay is quite specific about the make up of the passengers: the Air Marshall is there, along with an attractive young woman, and an important dignitary.  The story of the dream is received with a degree of levity by the guests, including those who are due to fly out to Tokyo the following morning.  After all, there are fewer than eight passengers, no girl, and no VIP.  And as Mackenzie points out, they are flying on a Liberator, not a Dakota.  Which is all fine until Hardie points out that, well, there has been a change of plan and they are due to fly on in the same Dakota on which they arrive.  The mood shifts palpably and the dinner party soon breaks up.
It emerges over a nightcap shared by Hardie and Robertson that the latter has never flown, and indeed has a deep-seated fear of flying.  They are interrupted by a late night telephone call from the Governor, who asks if Hardie will permit him the favour of allowing an important dignitary, Lord Wainwright, and his secretary seats on the morning’s flight to Tokyo.  Robertson glibly laughs off Hardie’s emerging sense of disquiet until the phone rings again and it emerges that Lord Wainwright requires Robertson’s services as a translator on the mission.  His ultra-rational approach to superstition and omens begins to crumble quickly from here on in, despite Hardie’s assertion that they are still two short and that there is no girl involved.

The next morning dawns bright and fair and the travellers prepare to board the plane.  Lord Wainwright has added a stenographer to the party, and , of course, it is a girl – Mary Campbell, played effectively by Sheila Sim. A hasty exchange between Campbell and Robertson soon establishes that the rational civil servant has made strenuous efforts overnight to have her replaced by a male.  He has also demonstrated his aversion to superstitious behaviour by avoiding walking under a ladder and desperately trying to thwart two stranded servicemen seeking to make their way back to Okinawa (Alfie Bass and Bill Kerr) from boarding the flight, since their numbers would then add up to those foretold in the Commander’s dream.  He is overruled and the plane begins its fateful ascent into a clear blue Hong Kong sky.

The first part of the flight is relatively uneventful, and those passengers who are aware of Lindsay’s dream gradually relax, although Robertson remains fraught.  McKenzie is quite preoccupied with Mary Campbell, as any red blooded Battle of Britain ace would be, and the flight towards the first night stopover point of Okinawa proceeds smoothly, for the most part.  However the structure of the film leaves the audience knowing that the aircraft will eventually go missing, so the false sense of security into which the passengers are lured cannot be shared by the audience.  Then the weather breaks dramatically, storm clouds roll in, and Hardie, McKenzie and Robertson are convinced that their number has indeed ‘come up’.  The plane shakes and rivets rattle whilst rain lashes the cabin windows but eventually they make a safe landing in Okinawa and enjoy some US-style hospitality.

The relief of those ‘in the know’ is both immense and short-lived.  Whilst in the air earlier, McKenzie has told Robertson and Hardie some further details of the Commander’s dream, which he omitted from the version told at the dinner party.  Lindsay had been more specific about the other passengers on the plane and one of them had been a very loud and flashy type, who had broken out into complete panic and the plane approached its final landing.  At least there had been no-one like that on board, they joked, in the comfort of the Okinawa mess, as, just at that moment, the loud and flashy Brummie businessman Bennett (George Rose) approaches Hardie and begs passage on tomorrow’s flight to Toke-e-oh as he is on very important business for himself and the Old Country. Hardie’s refusal is vehement, but later overturned when the Air Marshall realises that he too has been drawn into the web of doubt and superstition engendered by Lindsay’s dream.  Even worse, McKenzie has told Mary Campbell and a by now disintegrated Robertson has told the aircraft’s pilot (Nigel Stock) of the dream – probably not the best move he’s ever made.  The Air Marshall now tells Lord Wainwright the whole story, and how he thinks he should reverse his decision, only to be told by his Lordship that such an action would set civilisation back a thousand years.
The flight takes off the following morning and the whole chapter of accidents slowly begins to unfold.  Lord Wainwright has expressed an interest in viewing the ravaged cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the Air Marshall orders the plane to divert its course to take these in. Both cities are buried beneath dense blankets of fog and the diversion has taken some hours extra, a development which makes Bennett more agitated – he is due to meet important contacts in
Toke-e-oh at six – and increasingly critical of the flight crew.  The attempts of the flight crew to plot and maintain course is an interesting reminder of how relatively primitive navigation was in those days, relying on a compass and various geometrical instruments to plot a course, without, in the case of low cloud cover such as this, any real means of establishing where the aircraft truly was.

Bad becomes worse and worse becomes disastrous.  The radio fails; there is no oxygen on board because they rarely have to fly over ten thousand feet; they run into a ferocious storm which makes the previous day’s weather seem like a stroll in the park.  Tensions rise palpably, and by now, nearly all the major players know about the dream, the pilot most distressingly of all.  The intensity of the weather leaves them with no alternative but to attempt to climb above the clouds as they had the day before, only this time there is no break until they have reached an altitude where the air is so thin that it affects not only the asthmatic Bennett, but everyone else, including the pilot.  The plane is icing up and every rivet and bolt strained to its limit.  They are forced to descend with no guarantee of safety with the landing gear and the flaps lowered for added drag.  They are hopelessly lost and there is little doubt that Lindsay’s dream is coming true, a realisation made definite when the pressure upon Bennett becomes too much and he loses control completely and has to be wrestled into a seat by fellow passengers. 
The aircraft breaks cloud cover to show that they are over the sea, and they sight a ship which they try to signal too, but it is unclear as to whether they have been seen.  Within minutes the beach and the fishing village familiar to the audience from Lindsay’s dream are visible and the pilot attempts a landing on the beach only to pull away at the last moment, and put the Dakota down in a snow filled valley.  We are left with a silence broken only by the slapping of the windscreen wipers and the whistling of the wind.

The film returns to the control tower at Kai Tak and a cheerful Wing Commander accepting grateful thanks from the Governor for saving “all those important lives” by ordering a search of the remote area.  Commander Lindsay enters and reminds the Wing Commander why the search took place there in the first place. 
He reveals the story of the dream and mischievously suggests he has had one about the Wing Commander, which he refuses to reveal, except to assure him that if he ever should go missing, he will inform the authorities where to concentrate their search.

The Night My Number Came Up has been characterised as an example of those Ealing Studios films characterised by the occult.  There is certainly much within it to suggest that that is a true interpretation, and the link with the oriental preoccupation with omens and communication with the dead certainly give weight to that theory.  Clearly the behaviour of the passengers on the plane as their ordeal intensifies indicates that their rationality and civilised behaviour is a thin veneer which quickly crumbles under pressure.  That does not mean, however, that we are all bound by an inescapable fate.  The big difference between Lindsay’s dream and the reality of the flight was that the passengers survived the it, something which occurred largely because the pilot overcame the paralysis of superstition and took a professional judgement to land in the right place.  However, had Lindsay’s dream not foreseen the place of the crash, can we really believe that the search parties would have even considered that area in which to look?  Food for thought indeed.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent tour-de-force of a review. Its going on for 30 years now since I first saw this film. It was on as a Sunday afternoon film (after the Pink Panther Show) and I recorded it on a top-loading video recorder.
    I was urged to watch it by my father who'd see it at the pictures as a boy.

    I have no doubt that it influenced my love of these sorts of films. I also have an original copy of Potter's book.

    You need to restart this blog.

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  2. "The Night My Number Came Up" was created based on a true story of Victor Goddard's journal published in "The Saturday Evening Post", May 26, 1951. Dakota's landing site was Sado Island, Japan. This aircraft was eventually repaired, with generous help by local Sado Islanders, and flew again back to sky. This story is depicted now in a new 2013 Japanese film "Tobe Dakota".
    http://asianwiki.com/Tobe!_Dakota

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