Thursday, May 5, 2016

Murder in the Air (1940)

Murder in the Air was the fourth and final of the Warner Brothers B-movies starring Ronald Reagan as Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft. As a bonus this one includes action on board a zeppelin! Not a German zeppelin but a US Navy dirigible which is every bit as cool. There’s no way I could possibly fail to love a movie that involves airships.

Murder in the Air was released in June 1940. The United States was theoretically at peace but war fever had already started to sweep Hollywood. This movie deals with foreign spies and saboteurs trying to wreck the US military forces. They aren’t specifically identified as German but they all have foreign accents that sound vaguely German. 

Brass Bancroft has to go undercover, posing as a saboteur in the employ of a sinister foreign spy ring. The Secret Service got a lucky break when the real saboteur was killed in a railroad accident. Brass has been fully briefed and should have no trouble passing him off as the saboteur, except for one minor detail that got overlooked - the saboteur’s wife is part of the spy ring and she’s likely to notice a little thing like her husband suddenly being replaced by a different man.

The spy ring’s target is the US Navy airship Mason which is currently testing a new super-secret weapon, the inertia projector. This weapon can cripple an enemy fleet by knocking out all its electrical equipment. So this movie not only has airships, it also has a kind of death ray. It might not be an actual death ray but the good news is that it looks just like a death ray projector.

In actual fact the US Navy had already abandoned rigid airships by this time after the disastrous losses of the USS Macon (not Mason) and USS Akron. But airships are just so inherently cool that the producers magically resurrected them for this movie.

The plot is fairly basic but there’s plenty of action and excitement (there’s even a hurricane thrown in for good measure) and the very brief running time keeps the pacing tight so there’s no chance of boredom setting in.

Lewis Seiler was a solid journeyman director and injects the necessary urgency into proceedings.

Ronald Reagan was ideal for the role of Brass Bancroft. He can be convincingly heroic and he has an easy-going charm. Unfortunately in these movies he was saddled with one of the most irritating comic relief sidekicks in B-movie history in the person of the lamentably unfunny Eddie Foy Jr. The good news is that once Brass goes undercover his sidekick gets left behind and the movie improves enormously. Lya Lys plays the dead saboteur’s wife but gets little to do. James Stephenson makes an adequate chief villain.

Obviously stock footage was used for the exterior airship scenes but the scenes onboard the Mason makes use of some fairly convincing and interesting sets. And to be fair the stock footage is integrated surprisingly successfully into the movie. 

All four Brass Bancroft movies are available on made-on-demand DVD in a boxed set in the Warner Archive series. The transfers are very good and the set is good value for B-picture fans. I warmly recommend the first two movies of the series, Secret Service of the Air and Code of the Secret Service (especially the former).

The Brass Bancroft movies are fine undemanding entertainment and Murder in the Air is one of the strongest entries in the series. The airship setting adds extra interest and the ending provides some real thrills. Highly recommended.

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