Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pilot X (Death in the Air)

Pilot X (also known as Death in the Air) is a mystery thriller, but it’s odd enough to be of interest to cult movie fans. Any movie that combines aerial dogfights, a murder mystery, a love story and psychiatry is a winner in my book. And being the 1930s (it actually came out in 1936) the psychiatry is in the form of delightfully half-baked Hollywood Freudianism, so that’s another major plus!

It was produced by an obscure Poverty Row studio. Director Elmer Clifton had been making pictures since 1915, most of them evidently low-budget efforts including hordes of B-westerns. His career had started promisingly but by the end of the silent era he had become strictly a B-movie director.

Passenger aircraft in the US are mysteriously disappearing. It soon becomes evident that even though it’s peacetime, they’re being shot down. By an insane pilot identified only by the huge X painted on his aircraft’s wings. Several of the downed planes belong to an American aircraft manufacturer rather unfortunately (this was 1936 remember) known as Mr Goering. He hires US Army pilot and part-time amateur detective Jerry Blackwood to track down the mad killer, with some assistance from psychiatrist Dr Norris. Dr Norris decides it’s a case of war-time neurosis, an air ace who is driven to keep increasing his score of kills even after the war is over.

It transpires that there just happen to be five wartime air aces living in the neighbourhood so they are all invited to participate in the hunt for the crazed killer, who is presumably one of their number. They are all invited to base themselves at Mr Goering’s house while they fly patrols looking for Pilot X.

The acting is wonderfully bad even by B-movie standards, but the concept is so pulpy that it just adds to the enjoyment.

The aerial sequences are reasonably impressive - in fact by low-budget movie standards very impressive. The murder mystery is at least moderately clever. Of course it goes without saying that the aircraft manufacturer has a beautiful daughter (OK, in this case she’s his ward, but she fulfills the same plot functions) and naturally she becomes involved in a romantic triangle between Mr Goering’s son and Jerry Blackwood.

There’s also a memorable mad scene of operatic proportions involving one of the air aces, an RAF flyer with a very bad case of shell-shock. It’s all very silly but it’s fairly well-paced, it’s off-beat and it’s highly entertaining if you accept on strictly B-movie terms. It’s certainly worth a look.

It’s released on DVD by Alpha Video and it’s also available for download at various sites (quite legally since It’s a public domain movie).

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