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With: John Wayne, Janet Leigh, Jay C. Flippen, Paul Fix, Richard Rober, Roland Winters, Hans Conried, Ivan Triesault
Written by: Jules Furthman
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 112
Date: 09/25/1957

Jet Pilot (1957)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Communist Plot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A good movie producer keeps a watchful eye, chooses the talent wisely, and then goes away and lets them get the job done. But this hasn't stopped many producers from becoming maniacal tyrants who interfere and twist every last frame to their singular visions. Sometimes these producers hire weak directors that can be molded and bossed around, but sometimes they clash with powerful directors. The most famous of these producers is perhaps David O. Selznick, or more recently, Jerry Bruckheimer. Howard Hughes may not fit so snugly into the category, as he was known for many other things and only dabbled in movies sporadically. But Jet Pilot (1957) marks a clash of titans, between Hughes, the great director Josef von Sternberg, and the great screenwriter Jules Furthman.

Jet Pilot has just been re-released on VHS and DVD, and the DVD is letterboxed in a very nice transfer. It tells the story of an American air force pilot (John Wayne) who brings down a Russian plane which turns out to have been flown by Janet Leigh. She's a Russian defector (with not a trace of an accent) who wants to learn about American military techniques. Wayne and Leigh hit it off quickly and get married. But it turns out that Leigh is really a Russian spy.

Hughes initiated the project in order to capture his three top passions in one film; his love for planes, his hatred for Communism, and his love for... ahem... well-endowed women. Viewers who have only seen Leigh in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), and Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) may be surprised at how erotic Leigh was capable of being. Hughes cast her for her... ahem... sizable talents, but it was Sternberg who knew how to make a woman come alive onscreen. After all, he made Marlene Dietrich a star in their seven films together. In an early scene, Wayne performs a search of Leigh and makes her take off her flying gear. She then takes a shower, mercilessly teases him and then dresses next to the wood stove in the main room because it's warmer. Wayne watches in disbelief and wonders aloud if it's some kind of Commie plot. This near-striptease is amazingly hot. Leigh has just the right cutie-pie expressions on her face to drive mortal men wild. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, low-flying jets zoom overhead creating brief tension-breakers and punctuating the appropriate moments.

Aside from making Leigh look great, Sternberg seemed to have developed an interest in the flight photography, which is among the best I've ever seen, including today's films. Most of the scenes involve Wayne and Leigh testing each other, doing rolls, sliding up alongside each other, while we hear their banter over the radio. Sternberg correctly keeps away from showing close-ups and ruining the fluidity of the flying. He actually makes the planes seem like they're making love. (This was also Sternberg's only film in color.)

Sadly, it's not clear how much Sternberg actually had to do with the picture. It was filmed in 1951, and not released until 1957. Sternberg had nothing to do with the cutting or the release. It's been said that Furthman, who wrote screenplays for most of Sternberg's films including The Docks of New York (1928), Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Shanghai Gesture (1941), directed some scenes. And Hughes himself may have directed a few scenes, following up on his previous directorial efforts, Hell's Angels (1930), and The Outlaw (1943).

Besides Leigh, the flight scenes, and Wayne's solid and relaxed performance, the rest of the picture is pretty absurd. When Fran├žois Truffaut reviewed it in 1957, he nailed it saying, "It isn't a likable film and it isn't inspired by any ideology... Still, amazingly enough, it is a successful, even a beautiful film." It's not entirely a Sternberg film, though the Sternberg moments come through clearly, as work by a great "auteur" should. And despite its drawbacks and its overall silliness, I most heartily recommend Jet Pilot. Goodtimes video has released it at a bargain price (some sites have it for $10), so there's nothing much to lose.

DVD Details: The original DVD has gone out of print, but in 2006 Universal re-released the film as part of this five-film DVD box set.

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