Jet Pilot (Josef von Sternberg / U.S., 1957):

Godard, one of the few to have gotten the humor of Josef von Sternberg’s "comedy in close-up," had Belmondo and Seberg voice the punchline under the sheets in À Bout de Souffle: "We’re improving international relations." The Cold War gives way to Eros as soon as Janet Leigh is pulled out of her girl-next-door chrysalis and unveiled for the camera as a foreign object of desire, with overhead whooshes punctuating the three-gasp salute ("A woman... A lady... A dame!"). A masterful pilot defecting from Soviet airs, she nonchalantly steps into the Yankee base’s bathroom to discover such capitalist amenities as hot showers; John Wayne, the big, broad colonel, ponders this "new form of Russian propaganda" and, being attracted "in every way except politically," falls in love. Leigh, superbly adept at throwing her head back in luminous close-up, is fitted into white bathing suits, dark green uniforms and gold and purple harem costumes -- Wayne appreciates the Commie’s comeliness, yet their desire is consumed mainly up in the skies, as their jets insinuatingly wheel, twirl and dive around each other against pellucid whipped-cream abstractions. Howard Hughes put the film on ice for seven years, tinkered with it and padded it with his great fixations, airplanes and tits; Sternberg looks at the chauvinist flag-waving chucklingly, an artist shooting a coarse double-entendre ("The bottom of her tank is still damp," Paul Fix quips) with Zen serenity. Yet this is no forlorn auteur-for-hire propping a producer’s fantasies -- Sternberg uses the espionage and counter-espionage of Jules Furthman’s screenplay to depict the mysteries of relationships, even down to the Buñuelian perversity of the heroine’s Anna/Olga schism. Ninotchka's silly chapeau is briefly seen, a variety of later works (Bitter Moon, Heartbreak Ridge, Hot Shots!) are given a pokerfaced foundation. As for "dated Red-baiting," well, there’s the sizzling steak that lures Leigh away from a kiss. "Oh, you Americans..." With Jay C. Flippen, Richard Rober, Roland Winters, Hans Conried, and Ivan Triesault.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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