Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'The Spirit of St. Louis' (1957)

By Chase Kahn

Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis ('57) is a terrific, well-polished, albeit safe CinemaScope account of Charles A. Lindbergh's non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. I dug it because of Franz Waxman's score and Robert Burks' photography and Jimmy Stewart's performance, but Wilder's screenplay certainly has an air of respectability running through it even when it misteps at some crucial moments.

The movie sticks out to me because of the excellent stream-of-consciousness voiceover by Stewart as Lindbergh - which surely was something that was added into the script so that engine sputtering wasn't the only noise you heard during the historic flight taking up the second-half of the film as Lindbergh battles sleep deprivation, boredom, and unrest.

The fact that Wilder and Mayes chose to portray the early days of Lindbergh's life as an aspiring pilot during several flashback vignettes throughout the flight is an inspired choice but the scenes prove ultimately worthless. Instead of serving as insightful and prying, they're innocuous and obviously exist as mere time-lapses to speed along the epic, 32+ hour journey across the Atlantic. Honestly, we learn more from our time inside the cockpit than in the memories of our flying hero.

But The Spirit of St. Louis ultimately proves triumphant for the overall grand-sweep admiration is provides for the task. Billy Wilder certainly made better films, and I certainly wished the film had more scenes like the one between Jimmy Stewart and Patricia Smith in the hangar or the takeoff from Roosevelt Field scene, but I still stand behind it about 90%.

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