Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, May 13, 2011

Red is the color of my true love's helmet: QUEEN OF BLOOD, JET PILOT

Top: Queen of Blood (Florence Marley) / B: Jet Pilot (Janet Leigh)
QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966) and JET PILOT (1957) are two fascinating examples of Russian-American relations, each with a female pilot in a red helmet and a label as 'other.' QUEEN's footage of this woman's ship comes recycled from a bunch of Russian science fiction films like 1965's MESTRE NASTRESHU. These shots are almost Bava-esque in its deep reds and eerie gel lighting, and the AIP-shot 'American' material is directed by Curtis DEVIL DOG Harrington! It's flat and dull in military grade colors, with lots of lab coats gone grey through film decomposition.

Dennis Hopper and John Saxon are the recognizable faces amidst the astronauts, who in the ALIEN-prefiguring plot are sent to Mars where a delegate from another galaxy has crash landed, she's a vampire alien from godlessness knows where. Get the picture? Do I need to draw you a map to Mars' orbiting moon, the Island of Phobos? Why not ask the ancient remains of Basil Rathbone, still sharp as a tack and nutty as an heir of Frankenstein, as the lead scientist of Earth?


Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides - the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire Martian - while the Earth scenes and space ship interiors are re-shot on threadbare Apollonian sets by Harrington (with some Russian film crowd scenes spliced in). The result is a perfect metaphor for the repulsion/attraction between the US and side an ornate red samovar, the other an institutional gray cafeteria. Together it's like an unholy union written in the stars and read by lovers holding hands across the Berlin wall. When the astronauts of both planets get together for the flight home, the hypnosis starts and the blood drinking and the orders from on high not to harm the specimen, no matter how many human astronauts perish like so many sailors on Dracula's London-bound schooner. This time however, everyone but John Saxon agrees: save the queen! If she wants to drink Dennis Hopper's blood just warn her: the thorazine is long gone!

The point is, if if you ever watch Mario Bava with the sound off just for those great lighting schemes and purple gel spots, you'll love QUEEN OF BLOOD. All the metatextual Russia/Dionysian/Female/Plant/foreign-shot exteriors vs. US/Apollonian/Male/Us interior-shot/mammal dichotomies are just gravy on the GHOST OF MARS train, as is Judi Meredith as with her sexy smoker's voice and enough black eyeliner to darken the sun. In short, the film would be a great double bill with Josef Von Sternberg's JET PILOT (1957) and is clearly meant for a double bill anyway since it's so short (78 minutes).

JET PILOT comes directed (mostly) by Josef von Sternberg and produced by Howard Hughes, so you can imagine the arguments. Apparently writer Jules Furthman reshot some of it after von Sternberg left, and Hughes of course shot the airplane stuff, which is almost 1/3 of the entire film, but it's real stuff - up there in the cold air on top of the world, so like QUEEN, JET has a split identity which works meta with the Red meets White and Blue in bed scenario. The film has its flaws, but Wayne as the gruff Yank pilot ain't one, and neither is Janet Leigh as the hot Soviet pilot. She seems very young, carnal, smart, and doesn't even bother with a Russian accent (unlike Kate Hepburn's dull Russian defector and Bob Hope as the John Wayne in the far less lively comedy of THE IRON PETTICOAT (1956). Leigh and Wayne cram as much lust into their restricted gazes as the censor will allow while the cold war freeze of the empty gray sky above US bases in Alaska and Russian bases in Siberia makes a fine metaphor for the general iciness that is the post-code American perennial stalemate battle of the sexes.

It's a suitable metaphor not just for sex, but for bad sex, cold sex, post-children (no privacy) sex; sex where falling in love carries a lot of dangers, the other side may be a spy, and anyway aren't you? Like an early version of Roger Vadim or John Derek, Howard Hughes was notorious for seducing pretty girls and making them stars via inert films with awesome posters (like THE OUTLAW), and usually firing the original director along the way in order to ensure no scrap of fun or originality survived. But JET PILOT is a rare exception. Von Sternberg at least got in some good subtextual masochism out of Jules Furthman's excellent script. This pair of red star-crossed lovers constantly attempt to escape their warring governments and just get it on, alone, for a few hours. And when they do there's that comedy of remarriage sensibility - a come closer / go away back and forth that recalls the great screwball comedies. The Russia/US divide angle also illuminates the disparate polarities’ lack of ultimate difference: when her Soviet relations cockblock it’s because she has to seem disinterested in anything but following orders -and maybe she is; when Wayne's US friends and commanding generals cockblock it’s because of a temporary housing shortage. At the same time both superpowers encourage them into bed with each other for various pumpings for information on jet maneuvers, what the other side has and doesn't --and so there's a lot of great jargon Hughes no doubt made sure was legit and Furthman made sure wasn't boring. Von Sternberg takes a cue from military olive and bathes every set in shades of green until the whole film glows in the mind like a lime in a gin and tonic; and Lenny Maltin awards it a scant two stars as if begging to be punished by the State (read instead David Thomson's cautious enthusiasm for it in his indispensable Have you Seen...). Find it hidden deep in an old John Wayne set that includes--Lenin preserve us, THE CONQUEROR: John Wayne - An American Icon Collection (Seven Sinners/ The Shepherd of the Hills/ Pittsburgh/ The Conqueror/ Jet Pilot)

But find it, for the sake of the red stars and white stripes!

Thanks to Another Film Blog for some of the above stills!

1 comment:

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