Friday, May 22, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Sound Barrier (1952) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

THE SOUND BARRIER (1952) is one of a number of British films recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

The movie, also known in the United States as BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER, is a fictional story of British aviation designers and test pilots working to break the sound barrier.

The film has a literate, Oscar-nominated script by Terence Rattigan, based on his own story. It's intelligent and absorbing, mixing aviation thrills with family drama and heartbreak, and it sustains interest for all of its 118 minutes.

As the movie opens, it's World War II and British pilot Tony (Nigel Patrick) marries Sue (Ann Todd). Sue has a conflicted relationship with her father, aviation magnate John "J.R." Ridgeland (Sir Ralph Richardson), but Tony grows close to the man he soon calls Dad.

After the war Tony goes to work as a test pilot for his father-in-law, who's building new jet-powered aircraft. J.R. is determined to build a supersonic jet, causing Sue to live in constant fear when Tony is flying. Neither J.R. or Tony is quite able to explain why they are so determined to see what's on the other side of the sound barrier, but they can't give up trying.

I'll leave off any further description here in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that this film is more somber than, say, a movie like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), as it focuses more on the sacrifices of aviation exploration than the triumphs, though it has those moments too. And while it can be painful to watch, with an unexpected twist or two, the excellence of the filmmaking maintains viewer interest and propels the story onward.

As the movie went on I increasingly appreciated its subtlety, such as in the last few minutes, when a pilot at the moment of his greatest triumph begins laughing over an absurd situation, then suddenly breaks down in tears. One senses his joy, relief, and grief for those lost before him all in that one brief minute.

A scene where Sue's visit to a cinema is interrupted is another unforgettable moment, beautifully played by Todd and John Justin, who costars as another test pilot. Justin and Dinah Sheridan as his wife are charming, and their scenes help lighten the film's tone.

The hard-driving, bossy, and seemingly cold J.R. could have been played as a stock villain, but the script and Richardson's portrayal let us also peek at the anguish hiding under the confident, relentless surface. In a beautiful sequence, J.R. summons Sue to his office, ostensibly to discuss school choices for her young son, but it soon becomes apparent he's really asked her there as he can't bear to be alone while a test flight is taking place.

Patrick and Todd are winning as Tony and Sue; she manages to convey Sue's quite reasonable worries without making the character unpleasant. They have some beautifully shot moments, filmed by Jack Hildyard; a scene of Tony on a balcony looking at the night stars sticks in the memory. The final shot of the film is also quite lovely.

Denholm Elliott has a small role as Todd's brother. The same year THE SOUND BARRIER was released, Richardson and Elliott also played father and son in THE HOLLY AND THE IVY (1952), which is also available from Kino Lorber.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of this film, which was directed by David Lean, is a 2018 British Film Institute restoration. The extras include a BFI archival interview with Lean.

In addition to the Lean interview, the Kino Lorber Blu-ray extras include a new commentary track by historian-critic Peter Tonguette and four trailers.

I note that the sound balancing seemed significantly off on this disc, at least on my player, with the dialogue track much quieter than the aviation sound effects or Malcolm Arnold's score, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (The film, incidentally, won an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording.) The Blu-ray picture is excellent.

I'll be reviewing another Kino release of a British film with an aviation theme, THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP (1955), in the near future.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


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