Spy Smasher (1942)
Film review #460
Director: William Witney
SYNOPSIS: The masked hero “Spy Smasher” is captured in Paris on a secret mission to obtain plans for sabotage operations in the United States. He escapes back to his home country, where he is reunited with his brother Jack. However, the Nazis have also made their way to America shores, and the two team up with intelligence officer Admiral Corby to counter the threat…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Spy Smasher is a 1942 movie serial comprised of twelve chapters. It is based on the comic book series of the same name. The serial opens up in Paris, where the eponymous masked hero “Spy Smasher” is on a secret mission to obtain plans for a sabotage operation to be carried out in the United States. He is, however, captured, and after unsuccessful torture attempts, he is sentenced to death in front of a firing squad. Fortunately, a member of the French resistance, Pierre Durand, fakes his death, and is able to smuggle him back to the United States. The opening of this serial is quite uncharacteristically dark compared to others of the genre: The scenes of torture (implied, but shown just offscreen), and the firing squads are perhaps a more authentic look at what was happening during WWII at the time than other serials portrayed. From the outset, the serial feels a little more grown up than others, which is odd considering they were mostly aimed at younger viewers. Back in the United States, the Nazis have snuck in and are on a train to carry out their plans, when one of them recognises Spy Smasher and attacks him. It turns out that it is not Spy Smasher at all, but his brother Jack, and Alan (who is Spy Smasher in disguise) defeats the Nazis and reveals himself to his brother. The two team up with navy intelligence officer Admiral Corby and his daughter Eve (Jack’s fiancée) to counter the Nazi threat that Alan/Spy Smasher helped to expose. The rest of the serial’s story is simple enough to follow, but there’s a lot of different locations, such as Spy Smasher returning to Paris to free Pierre from the Nazis, which helps keeps things varied and interesting. The variety slows down in the latter half of the serial, but the finale has plenty of action and consequences to make it pretty enjoyable.
The characters are (as always) a familiar bunch insofar as they all follow very specific tropes that form the backbone of the serial format’s character roster. Jack and Alan are the typical young male stars that do all the action sequences and punch plenty of Nazis in the face. Admiral Corby is a typical older man that serves as the boss who receives intelligence and gives instructions. His daughter is the token female, who serves the typical role of simply being a family relation to a male character. It’s a pretty small cast, but it means that more time is focused on the actions of Spy Smasher, which is what you want to see really. The villains are Nazis. That’s it. They are mostly in their full uniforms somewhat faithfully recreated, whereas a lot of serials simply imply that the villains are Nazis, or working for a “foreign country.” The villains are led by a masked individual known unsurprisingly as “The Mask.” Despite the fairly decent costumes on the villains, the mask for The Mask is literally a piece of white cloth covering his face with some holes cut out for the eyes. I’m not sure why they bothered, since his identity isn’t of any importance, and he routinely removes it when communicating to certain people. The mask is apparently the villain from the comics, so I suppose he was just added to tie in with the comic, but he doesn’t stand out as a unique villain.
The production values are pretty good for a serial, and although there’s no exotic or novel sets, what we do get is sturdy and has a decent scale. The action scenes on top of speeding trains and the like are also well done, and deliver a good sense of danger. As mentioned the costumes are pretty good as well…apart from The Mask’s “mask” anyway. There’s also some plots involving planes and ray guns, which again add to the variety. Overall, Spy Smasher is a serial that stands above the average in terms of quality in the genre, thanks to it’s variety in the story and its grounded, consistent logic, alongside some good production values and camerawork. It’s a very good example of the wartime serials that portrayed the Nazis as the villains, without the film being simply propaganda. All in all, worth your attention if you’re a serial fan.