The Night My Number Came Up
Since it’s filled with members of the RAF, Leslie Norman’s 1955 drama gives the impression of a military adventure story, but it’s more like an existential thriller about superstition and suggestion. Action may be in short supply, but there’s plenty of suspense, generated by a smart script and a skilled cast. As it begins, a gathering of British soldiers and civilians in Hong Kong discuss the religious practices of the local population. “Strange people, the Chinese,” Mr. Robertson muses (he’s played by Alexander Knox, who locates the softness in this seemingly stiff character). He and his wife have spent two decades among them, but their social circle is exclusively British. That night, Naval Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern) shares an odd dream he had in which a twin-engine Dakota populated by eight passengers and five crew members goes missing in Japan. This story will come to haunt everyone who hears it—Robbie most of all. Working from a script by R.C. Sherriff (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Norman (Dunkirk) turns the heat up in increments. As the men prepare for a flight to Okinawa, they notice how closely it resembles Lindsay’s dream, like the way six passengers become eight when two Cockney soldiers book passage at the last minute after their original plans fall through. Air Marshall Hardie (Michael Redgrave, The Lady Vanishes) and his personal assistant, Flight Lieutenant McKenzie (Denholm Elliot), a former fighter pilot, note the similarities, but don’t let it trouble them.
Though the war cured him of the desire to ever pilot a plane again, Mac takes a philosophical approach, telling Robbie, “Perhaps nothing happens in this world unless somebody dreams about it first.” During the flight, though, Robbie grows increasingly uncomfortable, not least when the plane runs into turbulence, but when it lands safely, he’s practically ecstatic. And that would be that except the flight is continuing on to Tokyo. By this point, Hardie and Mac have started to share Robbie’s fear. And then, like a virus, it infects the pilot, too. They do their best to resist it, but everyone is on edge, particularly because the second leg of the journey resembles Lindsay’s dream even more closely—right down to the storm, the snow, the cliffs, the beach, and the “coarse, flashy” businessman (Michael Rose) who talked his way on to the flight. For a change, it’s the woman, level-headed stenographer Mary Campbell (Richard Attenborough’s wife, Sheila Sim, in her final screen role), who remains calm. The men, on the other hand, become so convinced that Lindsay’s dream is coming true that one of them needs to be restrained. Screenwriter Sheriff adapted the story from an incident involving British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard who survived a harrowing emergency landing on a Japanese island. The ending, which adds a clever comic twist, suggests that it’s best to live life as if it isn’t predetermined—even if it is. And that dreams are nothing to dismiss. Highly recommended. (K. Fennessy)