Zero Hour! (1957)
“It Builds to the Tensest 50 Minutes in the History of the Screen!”
Zero Hour! (1957)
Director: Hall Bartlett
Cast: Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden
Synopsis: A routine flight turns into a major emergency as passengers and crew succumb to food poisoning – is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?
Everyone sweats in Zero Hour!, whether they ate the fish supper or not. In fact, it has to be the sweatiest movie outside of a Spaghetti Western. Even those on the ground drip sweat. It’s just as well in the case of Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather), who plays a former co-pilot of Ted Stryker, the traumatised war veteran who finds himself in control of a commercial flight when the crew are stricken with food poisoning. Hayden is trying to talk Stryker down, but he’s so wooden that the beads of sweat on his face are our only clue as to how stressed he’s supposed to be feeling. The sweaty guy at the wheel is played by a tired-looking Dana Andrews (Laura, The Frozen Dead). He had enough trouble handling a plane with one engine during the war – this baby has four. The kicker is, he was only on the flight to make a last ditch attempt to prevent his wife (Linda Darnell – My Darling Clementine, Black Spurs) from leaving with their son, Joey (Raymond Ferrell). Joey likes fish. Not sure where he got that from as both his parents opted for meat. Bad luck, Joey.
It’s the template from which Airplane! was drawn, which is why it seems so damn funny, even though it’s trying to be deadly serious. The reassuringly calm Dr. Baird (Geoffrey Toone) advises cute air stewardess Peggy King that ‘our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner,’ and we can’t suppress a grin. Airplane! keeps getting in the way of the story, like an annoying little brother who won’t pipe down, so we find ourselves expecting Captain Elroy ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch to ask little Joey if he’s ever seen a grown man naked, and for the screen to be filled with jiggling boobs when the plane hits rough weather.
Fortunately for all concerned, the food poisoning by which the crew and half the passengers are afflicted is a rare kind that doesn’t compel half-digested food to seek the nearest exit, otherwise things could have quickly got nasty. As it is, people just sit in their seats and pull pained faces. And sweat profusely, of course. The Doc issues Dramamine to all and sundry while Stryker’s wife – and new co-pilot – watches her husband sweatily struggle over the controls with new-found admiration.
Zero Hour! is no cheesier than any other 1950s B-movie, but it seems that way now, and always will. At least, thanks to Airplane! it enjoys a spurious kind of fame instead of being completely forgotten, which it otherwise surely would have been.
(Reviewed 12th December 2015)