Sunday, January 31st, was the 100th anniversary of John Agar's birth. Agar is well known to film geeks for his numerous appearances in low-budget horror and science-fiction films made during the 1950s and 60s. When I wrote a blog post on my personal list of the greatest movie monster fighters of all time, I made darn sure Agar was on it.
I figured I just had to watch a John Agar movie on the night of his centennial. But instead of re-watching one of his many genre outings, I decided to pick a film I had never seen before.
I chose a very, very low budget feature produced by American-International Pictures and released in 1958 called JET ATTACK. This "epic" has been given a BOMB rating in Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, and it is included in the notorious book THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME.
Agar stars as Air Force Captain Tom Arnett, a jet pilot in the Korean War. A plane carrying an American scientist who has achieved a breakthrough in communications has been shot down in North Korean territory, and Arnett is tasked to see if the man has survived. The Captain and two of his Air Force buddies parachute behind the lines, and make contact with Korean guerrillas. The three men also meet up with a Russian nurse named Tanya (Audrey Totter) who helped Arnett out a year ago when he crashed behind enemy lines. Arnett and Tanya get the scientist out of a North Korean hospital, and the captain steals a MIG to get back to his base.
JET ATTACK is a prime example of a late 1950s AIP movie, except for the fact that it has no horror or sci-fi overtones. It's in black and white, there's plenty of military stock footage (this is what the entire "jet attack" is made up of). The story veers between being hokey and ridiculous, and the film runs not much longer than an hour, since it was supposed to be on a double-bill. The director was Edward L. Cahn, and the credited writers were Orville Hampton and Mark Hanna. All three men were veterans of low-budget drive-in 1950s movies.
But...is JET ATTACK really one of the worst films ever made? It certainly isn't good--but I wouldn't call it totally awful. John Agar himself made plenty of films worse than JET ATTACK. In my opinion it's watchable....it's not so boring that you'll fall asleep. It was made to be cheap entertainment, and that's exactly what it provides.
Agar is his typically earnest self in the lead role. He certainly doesn't burn up the screen with intensity here, but I doubt even someone like Spencer Tracy could have fared all that much better in the same circumstances. Agar doesn't get all that much help from Audrey Totter, who gives her character a generic accent that doesn't sound the least bit Russian. Totter is best known for playing film noir femme fatales, but she and Agar have little chemistry, despite the fact their characters are supposed to be attracted to each other.
The rest of the very small cast makes very little impression, except for an actor named Nicky Blair, who plays one of the men accompanying Agar on his mission. Blair is supposed to be comic relief, but he's overtly annoying while spouting off beatnik dialogue that isn't at all funny.
Needless to say, no one involved in this movie got anywhere near Korea (at least while making it, that is). The Korean guerrillas who help Agar out are dressed, and act like, Chinese peasants. Some of the stock jet footage is repeated, and some of the planes change shape and style from one shot to another. The movie does have a very boisterous score by Ronald Stein.
The most surprising thing about the film is the ending. Agar and the scientist do get away in a MIG (which isn't a MIG, it's an American jet fighter with a Soviet star painted on it), but every other main character winds up dead, even Tanya. Despite this, Agar doesn't seem all that broken up about it, considering he's sporting his trademark grin once he gets back to his Air Force base.
For those that actually went and paid money to see this picture, I can imagine what they must have felt, especially if they were in any way influenced by the poster above. A couple of kids playing with airplane models could probably whip up more excitement.
If you really want to see JET ATTACK (and why wouldn't you after reading this post?), the Tubi streaming channel has a very nice widescreen print of it available.