Death in the Air1936
Death in the Air (aka Pilot X and The Mysterious Bombardier) is a 1937 American film directed by Elmer Clifton and stars Lona Andre, John Carroll, Leon Ames and Henry Hall. The film is also known as Murder in the Air in the United Kingdom and as The Mysterious Bombardier (American reissue title). The film was Fanchon Royer's first production for her new company, Fanchon Royer Features, Inc. Film Daily reported that noted "G-Man" Melvin Purvis was offered a role in this film, but turned it down.
The story concerns commercial aircraft being shot down by a large black fighter aircraft with a large "X" painted on the wing. The chief suspects may be the very pilots that have been gathered together to solve the mystery, and are invited for the weekend to an old dark mansion.
Inspector Gallagher (Willard Kent) of the United States Department of Commerce views a number of crashes and disappearances of Goering-Gage Aviation Corporation aircraft as suspicious. With United States Army Reserve test pilot Jerry Blackwood (John Carroll), Gallagher visits the Goering-Gage company. Jerry test flies Goering-Gage aircraft but finds nothing wrong. When a severely injured passenger from a crash claims a mystery aircraft attacked them, the owner, Henry Goering (Henry Hall), hires psychiatrist Dr. Norris (John Elliott) to question the man. Dr. Norris believes a psychotic ex-World War I flying ace, whom he dubs "Pilot X," may be behind the attacks.
With the help of Blackwood, Goering and Norris assemble a group of five ex-flying aces living in the area who may have a connection with the mysterious Pilot X. He recruits German Lieutenant Baron von Guttard (Hans Joby), French Lieutenant Rene Le Rue (Gaston Glass), British Captain Roland Saunders (Pat Somerset), Canadian Lieutenant Douglas Thompson (Wheeler Oakman), and American Lieutenant John Ives (Reed Howes). The group meets in a mansion to plan how to confront the mysterious Pilot X.
One pilot, however, von Guttard comes under immediate suspicion when Goering is uneasy with son Carl (Leon Ames), an ex-German prisoner of war. On their first patrol, Pilot X attacks, killing von Guttard. Later that day, Le Rue is killed by Pilot X and the next day, Saunders has a mental breakdown. Blackwood receives a note from Pilot X, asking him to meet him in the sky at six o'clock the next morning. Thompson, meanwhile, receives a similar note but Pilot X, who is on the airfield, paints an "X" on Thompson's aircraft.
Blackwood mistakes Thompson for Pilot X, and kills the Canadian. When a paint can is found in Ives' locker, all accuse the American ace of being Pilot X. That night, Dr. Norris calls the elder Goering, telling him that he knows who is Pilot X, but is murdered. Gallagher believes Blackwood is Pilot X, and sends Ives and Saunders after him.
Helen Gage (Lona Andre), Henry's ward, however, first finds part of Saunders' goggles near Norris' dead body, then finds the other half in his aircraft. Crazed, Saunders takes off after Blackwood with Helen trapped on his aircraft. Once in the sky, Pilot X appears and attacks Saunders, wounding him.
In a fierce dogfight, Pilot X attacks Blackwood but is shot down. In the wreckage of Pilot X's aircraft the body of Carl Goering is discovered along with a photograph of Carl in a German uniform. He was not a prisoner of war, but deserted and joined the German Air Force. With the mystery solved, Blackwood and Helen realize that they are attracted to one another and embrace.
Principal photography on Death in the Air under the working title of Pilot X began June 25, 1936. A series of name changes took place with an affidavit filed on March 10, 1938 with the New York State censors to change the title to Pilot X (the title of the print viewed). On May 13, 1943, the production was re-titled and reissued as Mysterious Bombardier.[Note 1]
The aircraft used in the film include: Waco INF, Pitcairn PA 7S "Mailwing Sport", Fleet 2 and Stinson SR 8B. Stock footage from Hell's Angels (1930) has scenes of a Fokker D.VII and the Sikorsky S-29-A incorporated. In addition, sequences of Boeing F2B fighter aircraft filmed at air shows, were also used.
Aviation film historian Stephen Pendo in Aviation in the Cinema, considered Death in the Air "a very bad, quickly made melodrama about a murder-bent ex-war pilot ...it used much stock footage."[Note 2]
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