George Sanders plays an investigator who is looking into a crash of a “Phoenix” jetliner. The crash has been blamed on the pilot, Captain George Gort (Bernard Lee). Because Gort was killed in the crash, he is not around to defend himself. Gort had a previous crash on his record and had also been reprimanded for flying to low when he landed a flight in Calcutta. To Phoenix Airlines, Gort is the perfect scapegoat but a series of flashbacks reveals that Gort was a good pilot and that the cowardly Captain Clive Judd (Peter Cushing) was responsible for the incident in Calcutta. Captain Hugh Dallas (Michael Craig) tries to exonerate Gort’s name before another crash occurs.
Cone of Silence is named not for the famed listening device from Get Smart but instead for a key part of Gort’s certification process, where he has to fly a plane without being able to hear anyone or anything else around him. That Gort manages to do so is one of the things that leads to Dallas believing the Gort couldn’t have been responsible for the later crash. Bernard Lee is best-known for playing James Bond’s unflappable superior, M, and it’s interesting to see him playing a much more neurotic character in Cone of Silence. Gort is a good pilot but he knows that, after his first crash, no one trusts his judgment and everyone is expecting him to fail and it gets to him. It does not help that he has to deal with the weaselly Captain Judd, who is looking to blame anything that happens on Gort. Cushing does a good job of playing Judd as someone who is outwardly friendly but who is ultimately only looking out for himself.
Cone of Silence was released at a time when jet travel was still considered to be a luxury and pilots were viewed as being the men who could do the impossible. Not surprisingly, the film is full of lengthy scenes in which Captain Dallas and others explain every step that goes into flying a jet. Great care was taken to get every detail right, even if it meant limiting the film’s dramatic potential. This may have been fascinating to audiences in 1960, many of whom had never traveled on a plane, but today, Cone of Silence can feel dry and overly talky. It’s good to see Sanders, Lee, and Cushing all in the same film but Cone of Silence is never as compelling as its cast.