Opening Friday, the new thriller "Non-Stop" is an entertaining time killer you wouldn't mind seeing on a long flight, as long as that flight weren't bedeviled by the sort of dramatic complications the movies have found irresistible for nearly a century.
Our latest annual winter action movie starring Liam Neeson features Neeson as a weary, nerve-frayed federal air marshal mistaken for a hijacker when his trans-Atlantic flight turns into an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Like several recent, proudly claustrophobic cinematic thrillers — notably Wes Craven's "Red Eye" and Robert Schwentke's less persuasive "Flightplan," not to mention "Snakes on a Plane" — "Non-Stop" confines most of its action to a metal tube with wings and its shifty-looking passengers. Until the plot calls for extensive and physics-defying digital effects, "Non-Stop" is essentially a drawing room whodunit. The room just happens to be flying.
As you watch it — and I enjoyed doing so; whatever, it's February — "Non-Stop" becomes one of those experiences that blends the movie before you with lots of movies behind you. This may sound like a dubious pre-9/11 sentiment, but one of the truly great airborne-disaster sequences arrives near the end of Alfred Hitchcock's grandly stuffed 1940 adventure "Foreign Correspondent," just out in a swank Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD package.
In the spirit of "The 39 Steps," "North by Northwest" and "Saboteur," the episodic wartime thriller Hitchcock made two years after "Foreign Correspondent," the film darts through peril after peril, alternately solving or disregarding, blithely, its own narrative puzzles. The climax to "Foreign Correspondent" remains a dilly 74 years later. Joel McCrea, George Sanders, Herbert Marshall and Laraine Day, among others, are aboard a trans-Atlantic plane. A German destroyer, believing the plane to be a bomber, begins firing. The wing catches fire. The plane goes down, down, down. A point of view shot from behind the pilots' backs is dominated by rear-projection footage of the fast-approaching ocean.
Then, without a cut, in a stunning trick of the eye, unseen dump tanks behind the projection screen unleash some 5,000 gallons of water, flooding the shot with real liquid to go with the filmed stuff.
How did Hitchcock and company do it? The scene, much analyzed over the decades, worked because the screen was made of thin rice paper, and when the water came crashing through, the illusion was terrific. The real auteur of the scene wasn't Hitchcock. It was the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, credited here with "special production effects." Menzies shot the majority of the scene, which soon strands the film's key characters on a hunk of broken wing, bobbing in the Atlantic, waiting for rescue.
A lot of those later shots involve conventional rear projection, blending crashing waves on the screen behind the actors, and studio tank sloshing around in the foreground. But it all works. The anonymous Chicago Daily Tribune reviewer (writing as "Mae Tinee") praised this "seaplane calamity" along with "several other hair-raising episodes," adding: "The observer is rather emotionally used up by the time 'The End' is flashed."
The movies have been lying to us from day one. These days, digital effects make everything possible, and very little of what's possible is interesting. The practical magic deployed by Hitchcock is patently theatrical and artificial, and yet vastly more tactile.
The threat of death in the air is such a universal source of jitters, moviemakers don't have to do the usual amount of work in scaring us. They just have to do the right kind of work. Characters worth caring about is a start. In the land of turbulence, tiny bags of peanuts and panic among the high and the mighty, effects are not enough. They can't do it all.
Only Liam Neeson can do it all.
Follow Michael Phillips' coverage of the Oscars Sunday at chicagotribune.com/entertainment, and read it in Monday's Tribune.
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