Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Last Flight, William Dieterle, 1931

The film starts mid-flight, mid-fight. During an aerial battle in the First World War one plane is taken down by enemy fire. While spinning towards earth, the pilot tries out a heroic death gesture - but he survives the crash, along with his co-pilot. And along with two other guys who show up a bit later and accompany them first to Paris, then, why not, to Lisbon. (Of course, nobody has to leave the studio set. "Lisbon" is just one single shot of stock footage.) The rest of the film basically consits of one drink after another.

Structurally, everything is settled in advance. The four soldiers escaped death only accidentally, and because the war rages on, they don't really have a right to live. Maybe they don't really do anyway. The doctor who sends them off to civilian life already knows their fate: doom is written onto (not into) their young, frivolous faces. And indeed they fade away, some die, some just disappear, ghostlike. The one who survives does so because of a woman.

The structure is fixed and the plot, as announced by the doctor. fulfills itself almost mechanically. But at the same time, The Last Flight feels completely free-wheeling. Because the structure remains completely outside the set-up of the scenes, the dialogue, the acting. In a way it doesn't encapture the characters, but sets them free. In the beginning they are unhinged from the everyday world, in the end they are going to disappear (into death, nothingness, marriage) - and in between lies uncharted territory. So they'll drink beer, and liquor, and then beer again, they'll wrestle with horses and bulls, they'll shoot one another both accidentally and on purpose. And they'll meet a woman.

The woman: Helen Chandler's Nikki is first seen in profile, leaning on a wall in a bar. The men call her over to the bar. This image clearly is the center of the film: Four men and one woman lined up along a bar counter, boozing. No need for montage. Dietele's own cinematic ground zero: From here on, anything can happen. The men ask questions jokingly, the woman answers earnestly. The woman proposes stuff, the men jump around to fulfill her wishes. Once, they go to sleep in front of her bedroom. Three of them stretched out on, over, next to a couch, the camera set low, a genuinely bizarre image.

Even in the context of precode cinema, Nikki is an extraordinary character. She's naive, irrevernt, hard-drinking, but not at all a "loose woman". Hollywood's idea of a liberated wuropean woman? Or rather (the recent immigrant) Dieterle's idea of a tough hollywood dame?

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