Thursday, May 30, 2013

AIR HAWKS (1935)

Ralph Bellamy is the head of Independent Transcontinental Lines (ITL), a small and scrappy cargo and mail airlines. He's trying to get a lucrative government contract so he can get a bank loan to expand the company, but banker Wyrley Birch considers him a risk and wants him to sell out to the larger Continental Lines, something neither Bellamy nor his pilots want to do. But a group of men, including the head of Continental (Robert Middlemass), a casino owner (Douglas Dumbrille), and a mysterious "Chief," have hired a German scientist (Edward Van Sloan, pictured) to use his experimental laser-type ray to cause fires on ITL planes, making it look like the planes went down due to faulty equipment and care, which would pressure ITL to sell. A snoopy journalist (Victor Killian) gets on the case and discovers that Van Sloan is headquartered at an abandoned inn, but can he get this news out in time to save lives, and save ITL?

As with many B-films of the era, this is plot-heavy—the above doesn’t even touch on the romantic interest/femme fatale (Tala Birell) angle, or the sad story of the pilot who dies in one of the ray attacks and the wife and daughter he leaves behind. There's even a subplot involving real-life aviator Wiley Post who agrees to fly an ITL plane across the country to revive faith in the company. But considering the movie is under 70 minutes, the busy narrative keeps interest from flagging, and this winds up being a fun, fast-paced thriller. Bellamy is fine as the hero, Dumbrille good as the most visible villain, and Van Sloan (Van Helsing in the original DRACULA) makes a fine, almost archetypal mad doctor, though he doesn't get as much screen time as he deserves. The early scene in which Dumbrille and Middlemass meet the mad doctor at the inn is nicely creepy, right out of an "old dark house" movie, and the ending, with Bellamy attacking the death-ray machine, is exciting. The only thing that would really improve this movie is a better title, like DEATH-RAY IN THE SKY. [TCM]

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