Sure this is “just” a 68 minute programmer from the “B” unit at Harry Cohn’s Columbia via low budget specialist Sam Katzman. Yes, it’s probably utilizing about 20 minutes of stock footage to pad out the short running length to enhance the bombing raids over Germany during WW2. Amidst all of this, which includes a pedestrian plot that Warner Bros. would employ countless times going back to the Cagney/O’Brien pictures, is the one major plus within this Fred F. Sears directed effort, Mr. Dan Duryea.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever chatted with a classic era film fan who didn’t like this one of kind actor who could turn up stealing scenes in the latest Noir from Fritz Lang to partnering with James Stewart in westerns or playing second lead to Audie Murphy and Jeff Chandler. Thankfully on occasion he scored a leading role in films like the superb The Burglar or here as a pilot commanding reconnaissance raids over Germany on mostly suicidal missions.
Scripted by Samuel Newman who also had a hand in the original story, the plot is mainly told in a flashback with narration thanks to long time character player Michael Fox. The film begins with a group of three fighter pilots during the Korean War sent in to destroy an enemy stronghold to assist the fighting forces on ground. Two fighter jets are shot down prompting the one returning pilot, William Bryant, who has just witnessed his own brother’s plane crash during the raid to seek vengeance on the CO who ordered them into a death trap. The CO just happens to be Duryea.
It’s at this point that Fox pulls Bryant aside to tell him the tale of Duryea and his heroic exploits during the Second World War.
Dan is stationed in England flying missions across the English Chanel into Germany to take aerial reconnaissance photographs of key military installations. Serving as Dan’s CO is another familiar face, Morris Ankrum.
Into the story comes Mike Connors of Mannix fame billed simply as Touch Conners in the opening credits playing a co-pilot at odds with Dan who believes that Duryea has a reputation of sacrificing all those around him to save his own skin in the battle zone. Also turning up for the romance angle is Frances Gifford as a writer assigned to Ankrum’s outfit who will quickly find herself falling for Mr. Connors.
“Let’s see if you can fly as well as you can talk.”
Dan issues this statement to Connors as the pair along with a crew take off on a low flying mission into enemy territory that will leave their plane strafed and shot up with the crew manning the heavy artillery lying dead in the plane’s belly. Barely making it back across the channel, Dan, will crash land the plane but accomplish his mission of getting the vital photographs to HQ.
Dan is exonerated by senior staff for his decisions that Connors believed led to the death of his crew which doesn’t sit well with the younger pilot. When Dan is transferred to Africa, Connors, volunteers to go as well determined to expose Dan as a loose cannon who costs men their lives provided it isn’t his own at stake. Again for the sake of shoehorning a romance into the story, Miss Gifford, is sent to continue covering the story of a pilot’s life on the front lines.
It’s about time for a big fist fight between our two leads.
If it weren’t for the fact that Dan isn’t also making a play for the hand of Miss Gifford I’d think this was indeed a recycled script of a Cagney/O’Brien flick. Let’s just say it borrows some bits and pieces.
Time for one more mission to settle the score between our two leading men and prove to Connors that Duryea is indeed a man’s man of the John Wayne mold in battle before the story goes full circle to Fox relaying to Bryant the history of Duryea’s military career with the Korean Conflict raging about them.
For a low budget “B” I must admit that the cockpit scenes are well acted and offer up enough drama to satisfy fans of the genre. Can Dan make it across the Channel with barely enough fuel and controls that have been shot up beyond use? And as for carrying too much weight, we’ve got dead bodies in the hull that can dropped to the waters below. This is a major plot point in the private war between Duryea and Connors.
With all due respect to character player Fox who despite a long list of credits I’m not all that familiar with, I think the film could benefited greatly from the voice and presence of a Millard Mitchell or a Lloyd Nolan telling us the Duryea story.
Seemingly never out of work, Duryea, was in the midst of a busy run during this period. On TV he had taken the role of P.I. China Smith, he was playing second lead to Jimmy Stewart in Thunder Bay and even traveling overseas to film one of Hammer’s Noirs, Terror Street before the company name became synonymous with Gothic Horrors. From his film debut in 1940’s The Little Foxes alongside Bette Davis up until his death in 1968, Duryea, rarely disappointed and made any film he appeared in that much better.
Mainly a contract player since 1938, Frances Gifford, played her final screen role here in Sky Commando. Apparently she had been in a serious car accident in 1948 and was still suffering traumas due to the crash. A brief look into her story sounds like a movie waiting to be made. Have a look at her bio over at the IMDB.
I happened to catch Sky Commando thanks to TCM if you’re looking to catch up on Duryea titles or a pre Mannix, Mike Connors. Unfamiliar with Mannix? If you’ve seen Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood it’s one of the many TV shows that DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton makes a guest appearance on as his career begins to flounder. Mannix ran for 194 episodes between 1967 and 1975. It’s another show I like to check out on occasion just to find out who was the guest star of the week.
Now about this original 1953 one sheet in pristine condition. It’s a recent acquisition thanks to a local dealer who I’ve purchased a number of titles from over the years which prompted me to have a look at the film itself.