No Highway in the Sky has a peculiar structure. It starts with Jack Hawkins; he’s just starting at a British aircraft manufacturer and, during his tour, meets scientist James Stewart, who’s hypothesized a catastrophic, inevitable failure for the latest, greatest plane. Stewart’s convinced the tails will rattle off the planes, which are made with a new kind of metal composite.
No one has paid any attention to Stewart until this point because he’s absent-minded, but Hawkins is curious, so he gives Stewart a ride home and has a drink. Hawkins remains unconvinced of Stewart’s theory and now more suspicious he’s wrong because it turns out Stewart’s an egg-head who does science at home too. Plus, Hawkins doesn’t think Stewart’s raising daughter Janette Scott right. Hawkins doesn’t have any kids of his own, but he’s not an egg-head, so he knows better.
It’s a very awkward, vaguely ableist scene, making fun of Stewart with Hawkins having no cachet except… not being really smart.
Then Hawkins runs into an old war buddy, an uncredited David Hutcheson, who has his own suspicions about the plane, and then Hawkins immediately believes Stewart. At numerous times throughout the film, people will be against Stewart, then change their minds by the next scene. R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard, and Alec Coppel’s script is meticulous in contiguous scenes, but then transitions are almost non-existent. Or, presumably, cut for time.
With Hawkins convinced, he and big boss Ronald Squire decide they will send Stewart to Canada to investigate a crash. Because Squire hasn’t had his reversal yet, he’s thrilled to be sending Stewart as punishment for complaining. There’s also this strange—possibly unintentional—subtext with Hawkins and his wife (Elizabeth Allan, credited but not really in the movie) watching Scott while Stewart’s away. It seems intrusive, probably because Stewart and Scott only really have that first scene together to develop their character relationship. Everything else is for the plot.
The plane trip to Canada is where No Highway gets going because it turns out Stewart’s in one of the planes he predicts will fail. So even though he’s previously been entirely indifferent to potential deaths, they’re suddenly on his mind. Specifically, movie star Marlene Dietrich, who’s on the plane with him; Stewart’s wife liked Dietrich’s films, so he tells her how to, maybe, survive a crash into the Atlantic.
Stewart tries telling the pilot (an uncredited and very good Niall MacGinnis) and telling the friendly stewardess, Glynis Johns, but no one believes him enough to turn the plane around. Instead, they believe him enough to consider the possibility, which leads everyone to resent Stewart as the plane becomes Charon’s ferry. Maybe.
Lots of good acting on the plane ride, along with some unfortunate composite shots. No Highway’s a tad overconfident in its special effects, with director Koster giving his actors way too much to do in front of lousy projection shots. The instincts are good, but the execution’s disappointing.
After the flight, everyone is again forced to reexamine their relationship with and opinion of Stewart. Not just the people on the plane but also Hawkins, Squire, and—eventually—Scott. The third act turns Stewart back into the subject after begrudgingly making him the protagonist for the second. The film would rather stick to Johns or Dietrich and their experiences with Stewart, but since he’s the only active player, he’s got to play protagonist.
The third act is split between Hawkins (handling the professional repercussions) and Johns (taking the home life ones). Johns and Dietrich end up with one really good scene together—along with Scott for a bit—where they talk about who wants to fail Bechdel more. There’s an excellent subtext to the scene, though, with some really incisive moments from Dietrich. In the third act, Johns sort of runs out of character; she’s just a good British homemaker, even if she’s not currently married. There’s only so far she can go.
Most of the film’s problems resolve after that rocky first act. After a certain point, all of Stewart’s associates just talk really nice about him, which the film says makes up for them talking shit earlier. Not playing ableist assholes, Hawkins and Squire do much better (though basically just doing a quality assurance procedural). Johns suffers because her role goes nowhere, but she’s good. Dietrich’s got some good stuff. Stewart has a handful of good and great scenes, but for the most part, he’s just okay. The film doesn’t allow him an internal arc, instead making him project it; sure, acting out provides dramatic fodder, but limitedly.
Koster’s direction is occasionally peculiar, and he and cinematographer Georges Périnal don’t know how to shoot inside the airplane, but it’s all right. Koster’s good with the actors, and he keeps the pace up. The other technicals—besides the composite shots—are solid.
It takes a while for the film to get going, but once it does, whenever No Highway gets good (and it frequently does so), it gets very good.