Thursday, October 08, 2009

Appointment in London

Glancing back at 2007's inaugural Dirk-fest, I see that in a somewhat tossed-off review I rubbished 'The Spanish Gardener' as "a nothing film".

Which it is. I make no retraction of that statement.

Where I have sinned in that long-ago article is my dismissal of Philip Leacock as "a journeyman director ... his only other film of note is the WWII melodrama 'Appointment in London'."

Reapproaching 'Appointment in London' for this year's Dirk-fest, I realise I may have been hasty in that description. I remembered 'Appointment in London' as melodramatic because of the romantic rivalry between brash American pilot Mac Baker (William Sylvester) and driven British Wing Commander Tim Mason (Bogarde) over Eve Canyon (Dinah Sheridan), a widowed naval intelligence officer. I remembered it as melodramatic for its red-herring "careless talk costs lives" subplot.

But there's more to 'Appointment in London'; more than its thuddingly clunky title suggests. Let's get that title out of the way before we go any further. The film is set mostly on a Bomber Command airbase (presumably in Lincolnshire: it's very flat) and the title refers to the invitation to Buckingham Palace received by Pilot Officer Pete Greeno (Bryan Forbes) - nicknamed "the Brat" for his casual, daring-do attitude - to collect the DSO and bar.

Quite the Mr Popular is Greeno. Only Mason isn't too happy about his habit of making post-mission phone calls - in code. Not wanting to believe that Greeno might be a turncoat, Mason browbeats the truth out of him: the calls are to "a girl", to let her know he's safe. Mason tears him off a strip, then dismisses him. On Greeno's next bombing run, before he can keep his appointment in London, his plane crash lands on his return and he's killed outright.

It's against the sobering effect that Greeno's death has on the airbase that Mason's obsession with completing yet another and another mission is contrasted. He's notched up 87 as the film opens and both his superior and the Medical Officer are urging him to quit. 30 missions was the standard for a tour of duty on Bomber Command, with airmen lucky if they survived a third of that number. Mason's total - and his determination to push it up to 90 - comes across as borderline suicidal.

His last few death-baiting flights play out against his burgeoning relationship with Eve, their romance further counterpointed by the arrival at the base - looking for closure - of Greeno's mystery "girl": actually his very homely wife Pamela (Anne Leon). It's with mixed feelings, then, that Mason undertakes that fateful 90th mission. A nasty accident before the plane has even left the ground suggests that the flight might be jinxed ...

Easy to see why I'd recalled 'Appointment in London' as a melodrama. It has all the elements. But Leacock clearly isn't interested in them. They're only there as an excuse for a plot. Leacock's agenda is the minutiae of life in Bomber Command: the men, the planes, the equipment, the cameraderie, the drawn out periods of waiting between bombing runs and the proximity of violent and fiery death during them. What he isn't interested in, despite the cheesier aspects of the script, are gung-ho heroics, tub-thumping jingoism or the target for Mason's 90th mission being a secret base of our-best-chance-to-shorten-the-war importance.

I may have missed it, but I don't think Leacock really bothers identifying what the target for said mission is. The point is, the pilots and master bombers and radio operators and tailgunners took the same risks, chanced their lives in what were colloquially known as "flying coffins", and often limped back home riddled with anti-aircraft fire or an engine gone and it didn't matter if they'd been sent out to destroy a factory, a munitions dump or a railway yard (never mind something as dramatic as, say, a heavy water plant) - it was in a night's work.

I'm no plane buff but the few comments 'Appointment in London' garners on IMDb are from guys who seem to know there stuff and the consensus of opinion is that Leacock employs the right planes and the right technical details in accurate locations and situations. Disregard the Mason/Baker/Eve triangle and some talky longueurs, and 'Appointment in London' proves a thoughtful, detailed and quietly engrossing film.

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