Henry Todhunter (Thomas Mitchell) is a philosophy professor, but he won’t hold that title much longer. He has fallen ill, and during his last visit to the doctor, he learned that he has just six months to live.
The college has chosen to suspend Henry’s teaching duties for fear that he may drop dead in the middle of class and cause a scandal. They’ll cover all of his expenses in the final months of his life (allowing him time to enjoy himself and spend time with his beloved books), as well as the cost of his funeral.
Though the college is acting in the best interest of itself and Henry, Henry is unhappy with the set-up. He yearns to spend his last few months with purpose.
Ever the researcher, Henry decides to poll his pals at the University Club to find out what they would do if they knew they were going to die soon. Their answers are varied: suicide, travel, affairs with beautiful blondes, dramatic exits from jobs. The professor becomes most intrigued when one man answers that he would commit murder.
Vincent Sherman (The Damned Don’t Cry, Mr. Skeffington) directs 1941’s Flight from Destiny. Starring alongside Thomas Mitchell are Geraldine Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Lynn, Mona Maris, and James Stephenson.
Flight from Destiny is a compelling film, led by a stellar performance from Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell is likable, but his character is very much an academic, and also has the slightest sinister edge. His obsessive nature and conviction of philosophical belief drive the film.
Mona Maris is another stand-out of the cast, though I can’t say anything about her role without spoiling the film.
The most fascinating element of Flight from Destiny, barring the efforts of Mitchell and Maris, is the premise itself. The film asks questions about life and death, good and evil. Henry knows that he has little time left to live and won’t face any huge consequence if he snags that murder idea from his friend at the club.
Would such a murder be justified, if he chose a cruel or evil victim? Where is the line drawn between behavior deserving of a slap on the wrist as punishment, and behavior deserving of death? In typical old Hollywood fashion, the outcome of the picture is such that the message is clear: murder is never justifiable, even if the victim is someone who adds no value to society.
Flight from Destiny could benefit from a heftier dose of suspense, but it’s still worthy of a watch for the ideas it wrestles with, and for two very good performances by Mona Maris and Thomas Mitchell. The score: 3.5/5