Release dateMarch 1, 1939 (1939-03-01)
June 4, 1940 (1940-06-04) Based onOfficial Secret by Jeffrey Dell WriterBridget Boland, Jeffrey Dell (play), A.R. Rawlinson CastBarry K Barnes, Felix Aylmer, Edward Ashley-Cooper Similar moviesTraitor Spy (1939), Under Secret Orders (1937), Highly Dangerous (1950), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Q Planes (1939)
Spies of the Air (aka Spies in the Air and The Fifth Column) is a 1939 British adventure film directed by David MacDonald and based on the play Official Secret by Jeffrey Dell. The film stars Barry K. Barnes, Edward Ashley and Felix Aylmer. Spies of the Air involves espionage in the period just before the outbreak of war in Europe that spawned a number of similar propaganda films linking aeronautics and spies. Films in both Great Britain and the United States centred on "... spies and fifth columnists (as) the staple diet of films made during the first year of the war."
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, British test pilot Jim Thurloe (Barry K. Barnes) is involved in an illicit love affair with his employer's wife (Joan Marion). He is caught up in an elaborate scheme to steal secrets from Houghton's (Roger Livesey) aviation company. Jim is suspected of betraying his country to a foreign power. Scotland Yard Inspector Colonel Cairns (Felix Aylmer) is aware that the plans of a top-secret aircraft would be of great interest to an enemy.
Filming took place at Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, UK. The Air Ministry was interested in the production and allowed the latest Royal Air Force aircraft to be filmed from a commercial aircraft. A Percival Vega Gull (G-AEYC) and Miles M.14A Magister I/Hawk Trainer III (L6908) were featured in the film.
Made in 1939 and released in March 1939 in the United Kingdom, by the time Spies of the Air was in widespread release, war had already been declared. For its US release in a much abridged form, the film was originally going to be re-titled as The Fifth Column, but Ernest Hemingway sued the production company, as he felt that the new title infringed on his The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories anthology released the previous year. Hemingway won the suit, and the film reverted to its original title, although it also appeared as Spies in the Air.
Spies of the Air was quickly relegated to "second feature" status, as the release of the similar themed Q Planes (1939), with a much better known cast, overshadowed the more modest production. Hal Erickson wrote, "The flight sequences blend stock footage and newly-shot aerial scenes with acceptable expertise."
After the lawsuit by Hemingway had been settled, Spies in the Air had its US premiere in New York in 1940, and was reviewed by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times: "David MacDonald has purloined a page from the book of Alfred Hitchcock, but without the latter's sense of timing or knack of pointing a climax."