The Spider’s Web (1938)
Film review #411
Directors: James W. Horne, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: A wave of crime across the city targeting key infrastructure and transportation networks is being conducted by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Octopus” with aims to take over all the key utilities and companies. Criminologist Richard Wentworth must don his secret identity of “The Spider” in order to thwart The Octopus’ plans outside of the police’s rules and regulations…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Spider’s Web is a 1938 serial based on the comic book character “The Spider” (not to be confused with spider-man). The serial starts out strongly as most of the format does in order to entice viewers back week after week. In the opening chapter contains plane crashes, car chases, fist fights and a heap of explosions, so there’s definitely plenty of bang for your buck. The explosions and destruction of key transport and city infrastructure is being carried out by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Octopus,” who seeks to put his own men in charge of all these utilities by killing off the current managers of them. Renowned criminologist Richard Wentworth is travelling home on his plane with his sweetheart Nita van Sloan when their plane is attacked and they have to parachute out. Wentworth learns of this new crime wave and decides to once again become the masked vigilante “The Spider,” who chases crime where the rules and regulations of the police cannot go, even though he promised Nita that he had retired from the costumed life. The story is a standard serial affair of the hero foiling the villain’s various schemes across the fifteen chapters, and while it does not do much unique in terms of story, it still executes the usual plot points in a fun and interesting way, and with a good level of competency.
The characters are a typical cast of serial characters. Wentworth is the usual lead character, Nita is the sole female character, and Jackson is the sidekick who gets in on some of the action. Ram Singh is Wentworth’s assistant who is clearly meant to be Indian, but is portrayed by a white American and refers to him as “Master” occasionally like he is a servant. and that is obviously a problematic stereotype of non-white people being subservient to them. Wentworth himself is very much like Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne: he is rich, clever, works alongside the police, but when he dons his mask to fight crime, he is wanted by them. He can also disguise himself as a known criminal “Blinky” McQuaid, which he uses to get close to the criminals and get the information on their plans. These different facets to the main character add some good variety to the serial, and make the lead a bit more stand-out from the sheer volume of serial leads which all look and act the same. The Octopus as a villain is shown to be cunning and ruthless, as he executes those who fail him. His being dressed in a white hood and cloak mirrors the Spider’s outfit, which is almost the same, but in black. The identity of The Octopus is, unusually for such a serial, never really explored or even revealed in the finale, and we are only told he is one of the most powerful men in the city.
At the time of it’s release, The Spider’s Web was a huge success, and it is easy to see why: it doesn’t deviate from the serial format, but does all its tropes pretty well. The character of The Spider as a masked vigilante probably helped kick-start the popularity of masked superheroes, and serial adaptations in the 1940s. The Green Hornet, one such serial, is practically identical in both story and characters, with the masked vigilante stopping crime and eluding the police, while being aided by a foreign sidekick.
Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
Film review #384
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. G-man Dick Tracy is on the trail of the Stark family: A criminal gang consisting of “Pa Stark” and his five sons. When new G-man recruit Ron Merton is murdered by the Starks when they hijack a convoy, Tracy swears revenge and attempts to track them down while thwarting their many villainous schemes.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy Returns is a 1938 film serial and the sequel to the Dick Tracy serial released a year earlier. The story this time revolves around Dick Tracy trying to thwart the criminal enterprises of the Stark family criminal gang, led by Papa Stark and his five sons Champ, Trigger, Dude, Kid and Slasher (great names). The Starks have a range of schemes and crimes they try to carry out, and this gives the serial enough variety to see it through, as Tracy and his team have to stop them across land, sea and air, resulting in an array of chases, as well as some good old-fashioned detective work. The original Dick Tracy serial was a strong mix of serial elements that kept its momentum across its fifteen chapters. Dick Tracy Returns emulates that success and continues it. There’s not much new here, but since the original was a success, there isn’t any need to fix what is not broken. And of course, in an era without repeats on television or home media, it was easier to repeat things on screen as the only way to watch these serials was to go to the theatre every week for the next instalment.
Most of the protagonists from the first serial return with the same actors, which provides a good sense of continuity. The only real change is that a different actor plays Junior, but that’s not much of a distraction. There’s not much character development, but every character has a role to play, from the heroic Dick Tracy and Steve Lockwood, the humour from Mike McGurk, and Tracy’s assistant Gwen, there’s a decent amount of variety in the characters. The villains are also fairly interesting, and showing Tracy stop the individual sons of papa Stark makes the story flow a little easier. Like the first serial, Dick Tracy Returns is a good example of the movie serial format, and has plenty of action, distinguishable characters and thrilling cliffhangers to keep viewers coming back. It’s mostly par for the course for the serial format, but a good example of it.