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Flat Top (1952)

A number of years before producer Walter Mirisch began to bring major “A” budget projects to movie screens including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and In the Heat of the Night, he was spearheading a number of solid “B” films including this Lesley Selander directed effort at Monogram that cast Sterling Hayden in the lead role.

Told in flashback, Hayden, is playing a no-nonsense squadron commander aboard the U.S.S. Princeton in the later stages of WW2. Coming aboard the aircraft carrier is Richard Carlson and a crew of green pilots he’s been charged with through flight school while acting as their big brother when they got into scrapes along the way. Among them you’ll recognize William Schallert, John Bromfield and Keith Larsen. It’s Larsen who will run afoul of Hayden’s by the book commander finding himself grounded and working a desk onboard the ship while his pals take to the skies in rigorous training maneuvers led by Hayden.

It’s going to be a tough love from the tightly clenched jaw of Hayden. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and isn’t fond of Carlson’s continually defending his rookie pilots and asking Hayden to lay off the tough guy act and to be more humane towards the youngsters. Hayden isn’t budging and has a flight record to back it up. It’s well known among his recruits that he’s ranked number 3 in confirmed kills among the American forces. He’s a real live flying ace and demands their respect and commitment to his training regiment.

Even when following a relatively easy raid on a fleet of enemy transport ships that yields many kills and no casualties, he has little praise for Carlson and admonishes the pilots who in their excitement broke radio silence. This will only lead to another heated standoff between Hayden and Carlson who in just two short years would star in the biggest hit of his movie career, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Even if his lead role is hidden behind the Gillman and bathing suit of sexy Julie Adams.

The duo’s relationship won’t get any better on the next raid when Hayden sends Carlson and two other planes to intercept a squad of Japanese Zeroes. This is a perfect time to point out that there is plenty of real WW2 color footage spliced into this 85 minute feature and it’s done with skill and extreme care. Between shots of the aerial dogfights and exploding ships in the waters below, our actors in the studio made cockpits are seamlessly incorporated into the action sequences. All that’s really missing is spotting Richard Loo or maybe Philip Ahn as the Japanese pilots who are battling Hayden’s group of flyers. There are some unbilled Asian actors shown on screen but none that I recognized.

With Hayden coming across as a real hard case, the script inserts one of those needless attempts to turn him into a regular guy suffering within himself on the front lines. You see he’s got a newborn at home with lovely wife Phyllis Coates.  Miss Coates makes a very brief appearance sitting back in the good old U.S. of A looking to the skies with worry in her heart, pining for her man and wishing no harm comes to him. Coates might be best known as Lois Lane in the first season (1952-1953) of The Adventures of Superman opposite George Reeves.

On that note isn’t it ironic that Jack Larson appears in Flat Top in an unbilled bit as a sailor who likes to spread scuttlebutt among his fellow shipmates. Larson played newsboy Jimmy Olsen for the entire series run of The Adventures of Superman which came to an end in 1958.

There is still more fighting action to come in both the skies and aboard the ship when it falls under a surprise attack from Japanese fighters. No not every member of our squadron will make it out of the war alive but they’ll die knowing they fought the good fight and in one case with Hayden by the bedside of a dying pilot again cutting his stern exterior down to size in front of his young crew.

Flat Top is another fine “B” film from workhorse director Lesley Selander who had a real skill at getting the most out of his actors on limited budgets in an unbelievable tally of 37 films he directed from 1950 to 1955. Hayden who was a real life WW2 veteran of the O.S.S. worked with Selander on 1953’s Fighter Attack, 1954’s Arrow In the Dust and 1955’s Shotgun.

This is an easy film to recommend to one and all classic film fans. It’s running time at 85 minutes is well suited for a quick fix, it’s filmed in color to match that stock footage from WW2 and it’s got the stoic Hayden in the lead role. Try clenching your jaw and say the line, “ease up on that throttle.” Now conjure up an image of Hayden delivering it and see how you compare to the leading man of numerous fifties films and one Noir classic, The Asphalt Jungle.

Flat Top was released on blu ray through Olive Films if you’re looking to score a copy like I did. I must say I love the cover art for this one and recall when we still had video stores locally asking if Olive Films were sending advertising posters along with the copies for sale. Sadly the answer I got was no. I would have liked one for this cover art.

13 Comments »

  1. Shotgun was the best of the two western collaborations between Hayden and Selander, in my opinion anyway. It’s a characteristically tough little picture and well cast. Arrow in the Dust, however, I found to be very uneven and a generally disappointing experience.
    I do like both director and star though and I must make an effort to see this film.

  2. Like Colin, I am very fond of Shotgun and the strong cast plus its in Cinemascope and Colour. I am inclined to accept its the best western from Sterling Hayden! Best regards.

    • I’ve yet to see all his westerns so don’t have a favorite and to be honest I associate more with the Noir genre I guess of which he’s in a number of classics. I see the western El Paso just turned up on blu ray so will see if I can score a copy. Cheers’

  3. I’ve always liked Sterling Hayden, from his noir films forward, and this one sounds like a good one…the story reminds me a bit of ’12 O’Clock High’ with Gregory Peck…are the films similar? (I’m assuming you’ve seen the latter). And is ‘Flat Top’ the nickname of the ship?

    • Yes I identify Hayden more with Noir than any other genre. He always had that defeated look about him. No where near the A list production of the Peck film. I just assumed the Flat Top name was for the ships deck where the planes land. But what do I know not having been in the armed forces?

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