Secret Agent X-9 (1945)
Film review #426
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Shadow Island is an island in the Pacific ocean owned by American gangster Lucky Kamber. He has maintained his island’s neutrality during the war, but this has also meant it has become a hotbed for spies from all countries to visit and engage in shady activities. Secret Agent X-9 is sent by America to investigate a Japanese plot concerning something known only as element 722, teaming up with a Chinese agent and Australian spy to take on the Nazi and Japanese forces on the island.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Secret Agent X-9 is a 1945 serial comprised of thirteen chapters. The film takes place on Shadow Island in the Pacific Ocean, which has retained it’s neutrality on the ongoing World War II thanks to it’s owner Lucky Kamber striking a deal with the Japanese government. However, this neutrality brings in all spies from all warring nations, leading to a hotbed of subterfuge and sabotage. Japanese scientist Hakahima discovers an element known only as “722″ has the capability to replace airplane fuel when mixed with water, thus supplying an infinite fuel source. The head of the Japanese on the island, Nabura, devises a plan to send a criminal to the United States, whose face is altered by plastic surgery, to imitate the professor who discovered element 722 and get the formula from his office, which the professor himself believes to simply be a failed experiment. When Australian spy Lynn Moore learns of this, she informs her superiors, and the Americans send in secret agent X-9 to foil the plot, teaming him up with Chinese agent Au Fong. The setup to this serial is certainly one of the more interesting of the serials I have seen, with this island providing a unique setting for all the warring nations to scheme against each other. The back-and-forth plot of the protagonists sneaking around and attempting to foil the villains schemes is more typical of the serial format. However, there’s a good variety of settings and characters that keeps things interesting, alongside the tense relations between enemies that have to keep in line with the island’s neutrality. There is a lot of dialogue that simply repeats the plot points, but that’s not too uncommon for serials where viewers may not have watched all of the chapters.
The characters are a pretty interesting bunch, and offer a decent amount of variety. Many of the nations involved in the war are represented within these characters, with their own personalities that make them stand out. Secret Agent x-9 himself is played by a young Lloyd Bridges, and is definitely a strong lead, with his shiny blond hair, buff physique and charming personality. Au Fong, the Chinese agent, is played by Keye Luke, who played Kato in the Green Hornet serials, and is a good sidekick. Lynn Moore as the Australian double agent (who has an American accent) who pretends to work for Japanese forces with her radio broadcasts has a fair amount to do, particularly in comparison to other “token females” that are usually found in these serials. There’s also the Nazis that are fairly convincing in their full uniforms, as usually they are only referred to as a “foreign power” and never in the full uniforms. This goes a long way in giving the serial a convincing setting. The main protagonist is Nabura, a Japanese woman, who is played by a white American actress in makeup. This is not unusual at the time, but at least most of the other (male) Japanese characters are played by Asians. Her character comes across as sufficiently scheming and evil, but her portrayal by the actress constantly has her eyes half closed and looking at the floor as if she is reading her lines that are offscreen, which is distracting. Lucky Kamber, the owner of the island, in his portrayal in keeping the island neutral in the war, also has an interesting role as he tries to keep everyone else from tearing each other up. Other minor characters such as Solo, who sits at the same spot playing tiddlywinks for most of the film, and the French hotel owner Papa Pierre, also have their own personality and look which makes them fairly memorable and allow them to bring their own unique flavour to the scenes they are in. It is very rare to find a serial with such a varied cast and to make them interesting enough across the entire serial, but this serial definitely goes a lot further than others.
The setting of Shadow Island provides a decent variety of locations, from the casino, the Nazi ship and the hotel run by Pierre. They are all fairly distinct from one another, so the viewer can keep track of where they are. As mentioned, the characters all have a distinct appearance, from the Japanese soldiers to the Nazi uniforms, their is little doubt about who is who. Probably the weaker elements of the serial is the lack of action sequences, which revolve around the typical fistfights and car chases that you would expect to see. Most of the serial is focused on the intrigue and espionage played out through the characters, so it is important to follow the story. The cliffhangers aren’t too interesting, but there’s one or two novel traps the heroes have to escape from. Overall though, I think Secret Agent X-9 has an interesting and quite unique setup, alongside an array of distinct characters. The heroes are likeable, and the villains despicable, with a few morally grey characters as well to make things interesting. Some elements of the plot are a bit more typical, and the constant re-iteration of plot points can be a little tiresome. There’s less emphasis on action and more on espionage so perhaps some people (particularly younger viewers) may find it a little tiresome, but it distinguishes itself enough to make it a good and fairly unique example of the genre.
The Monster and the Ape (1945)
Film review #402
Director: Howard Bretherton
SYNOPSIS: Professor Arnold at the Bainbridge Research Laboratory have completed construction on a revolutionary new robot called the “Metalogen Man” that they believe will be able to accomplish all manual labour. However, after a demonstration to Professor Ernst and three other colleagues, Ernst arranges the deaths of the other three and steals the robot for himself using a trained ape. Ken Morgan, a representative for the company who ordered the robot, teams up with Professor Arnold and his daughter Babs to stop Ernst and recover the robot, before Ernst can find more of the valuable mineral Metalogen and create an army of unstoppable robots…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Monster and the Ape is a 1945 movie serial composed of fifteen chapters. The opening chapter sees Professor Arnold give a demonstration at the Bainbridge research Laboratory to Professor Ernst and three other colleagues of “The Metalogen Man”, a human-like robot that will be able to handle all kinds of manual labour. After the demonstration, Professor Ernst arranges the deaths of his colleagues and steals the robot for himself using a giant trained ape named Thor. Ken Morgan, the representative of the company who was going to buy the robot, arrives but finding the robot has been stolen, teams up with Professor Arnold and his daughter Babs to attempt to recover the robot. The story follows Morgan, Arnold and Babs as they try to thwart Ernst’s various schemes to unearth more of the valuable mineral Metalogen to create more robots. The story follows the usual serial format rules, with a lot of back-and-forth between the heroes and villains as the robot and it’s control unit are stolen and re-stolen throughout the fifteen chapters. There are less action scenes and very few chase scenes in vehicles which are typically a staple of the format. The cliffhangers are fairly varied and contain some elaborate traps, but you know how they’re going to end up most of the time.
The “monster” and the “ape” of the title are the robot and Thor. The robot is controlled by a control unit and looks fairly strong and menacing, with its light up eyes and bulky body. Thor is brought out of the zoo by its trainer to carry out the orders of Professor Ernst, and handles jobs such as carrying the robot, which is too heavy for any person to lift. Thor himself is played by Hollywood stuntman Ray Corrigan, who owned the ape-suit and would rent himself and the suit out to movies that required it, and he does a convincing job with it. However, we don’t see nearly enough of the two of them, and most of the action doesn’t involve them. The worst part is we never get to see the two of them fight one another, which is a hugely missed opportunity (and being shown on the posters). Thor dies by being shot in the thirteenth chapter, which is a hugely underwhelming end for the titular character. The rest of the characters follow the usual format, with the lead male doing the action and fight scenes, the sole female character who acts as an assistant or secretary, and the ‘good’ scientist who helps them. There’s also Flash, who plays a comic relief character (I’m not sure what his role in the laboratory actually is), and is played by a non-white actor, which is very rare in 1945. He is played as having a low intelligence and being a coward, which results in him being very much a racist caricature, and is quite problematic to say the least. Professor Ernst as the villain has plenty of schemes, and while he has no special powers, inventions, nor is he hidden behind a disguise like many serial villains, he still has quite an aura of menace about him.
Overall, The Monster and the Ape is a typical serial adventure with few stand outs. It has some elaborate cliffhangers and scenarios that replace the well-worn vehicle chases of other serials, but it’s titular “monsters” are vastly under-utilised, and you can’t help feel a little disappointed with the potential of a robot versus an ape, and what we actually get, which is the sparse use of both and the lack of any confrontation between them.
The Purple Monster Strikes (1945)
Film review #392
Directors: Spencer Benet, Fred Bannon
SYNOPSIS: A rocket ship from the planet Mars makes a landing on Earth, and the astronomer Professor Layton goes to investigate. he finds a man from Mars as the only passenger on the ship and takes him to his observatory, where he learns the man is actually the first part of an invasion force come to conquer the Earth. After killing Layton, he has the ability to possess his dead body and attempt to get his prototype rocket ship design finish so he can use it to return to Mars and lead the invasion. The only person that can stop him is Layton’s assistant Craig Foster, accompanied by Layton’s niece Sheila.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Purple Monster Strikes is a 1945 movie serial. The opening chapter sees a rocket ship crashing to Earth and Professor Layton going to the impact site. There he finds a man from Mars who it turns out to be the first of an invasion force sent to conquer the Earth. The Martian kills Layton and through the use of gas from the Martian atmosphere, is able to possess Layton’s dead body whenever he wants, which he does in order to get Layton’s rocket ship prototype finished, which is the final key to the invasion, as the Martian rocket ships are unable to return to Mars. Learning of the plans of the “Purple Monster”, Layton’s assistant Craig Foster and Layton’s niece Sheila must find a way to foil the Purple Monster’s plan to steal the rocket ship plans. The story unfolds in keeping with almost every other film in the serial format, with each chapter presenting a new scheme from the Purple Monster and Craig and Sheila attempting to foil it. The ability of the Purple Monster to possess Professor Layton’s dead body is a little dark, but it keeps it family-friendly by not dwelling on the details too much. The back-and-forth between the Purple Monster and Layton also adds an interesting dynamic between the characters. The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter are quite ambitious too, and full of high speed chases and explosions. You always know that they’ll result in someone escaping death at the last second, but it still puts some effort into pulling it off.
The characters themselves are a pretty dull bunch. The usual archetypes are all here: the main young white cowboy-esque hero, the token woman, the scientist, the mysterious villain and his henchman: there is nothing inspiring about any of them. We sometimes see the Martian emperor being contacted by the Purple Monster, and his assistant shows up near the end, but neither of them really offer anything exciting or interesting. The whole business with the Purple Monster being able to possess Layton really ties in with one of the main tropes of these serials of the enemy spy hiding in plain sight, and who could be anyone, which really ties into the paranoia around enemy spies in the U.S. during wartime. Other than that though, the cast is rather forgettable.
Overall, while The Purple Monster Strikes has some good special effects and fast-paced action scenes, its characters are dull and bland, and fail to stand out in the format. I think it sits comfortably in the middle of these serials: nothing special, but nothing catastrophically bad either. Being directed by two of the most prolific serial directors, Spencer Bennet and Fred Bannon, they certainly knew what they are doing, but they’re obviously doing it to create a stable source of income rather than trying to innovate at this point into the format’s history.
Dick Tracy (1945)
Film review #387
Director: William A. Berke
SYNOPSIS: Police detective Dick Tracy is investigating a series of murders carried out by a man calling himself “Splitface”. With plenty of suspects around, Tracy has his hands full trying to apprehend the killer, protect the mayor, and keep his girlfriend Tess happy…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy is a 1945 film and the first feature film in the Dick Tracy franchise, after the four serials made between 1937 and 1941. The film starts out with a murder of a teacher, which Tracy learns has been carried out by a man calling himself ‘Splitface,’ thanks to a note left by the killer demanding a ransom payment. As the film progresses, a number of suspects emerge, and Tracy must use all of his detective skills to work out who the murderer is. The film fits very much in the crime-noir genre, with the high contrast lighting and dark plot. It also evokes the original comic book style with its dramatic perspectives. The story is certainly more of a faithful adaptation of the comic book than the serials with Tracy being a police detective rather than a G-man as he was in the serials. More of the characters from the comic also make an appearance, which will probably be welcome to readers of the comic (I assume a fair amount of people would have heard of the comics back when the film was released). With each new suspect that emerges, there’s a new element to the plot to be explored, and the pacing is quite consistent with allowing these plot points to keep things from becoming stale or dull. There are some unresolved elements that don’t really go anywhere though, such as Judith Owens being reluctant to discuss where her Father is. With a runtime of just over sixty minutes, the film is quite short, but I think it accomplishes what it wants to do.
As mentioned, a number of characters from the original comic make an appearance, creating a varied and interesting cast. A lot of them also have exuberant appearances or names (Deathridge for the undertaker, for example), which emphasises the comic style. despite the gritty film-noir story, there’s some light-hearted comedy moments which seem more comic-esque, and it feels like the film is trying to pull off both at once, with mixed results. One thing I think the serials did better is the use of science-fiction elements which added something unique, and I think was more in-line with the comics. This film has much more realism, but not so much that it is able to stand out in the film-noir genre. One bizarre scene involves a scientist gleaming into a crystal ball and seemingly hypnotising Tess, but that seems completely out of place, and it was never explored if he really did have the power to hypnotise someone.
This film marks the first time that Dick Tracy is not played by Ralph Byrd, instead by Morgan Conway. The tow look and act very differently, and if you’ve seen the serial you might not like the change. Whereas Byrd’s performance was widely praised as a smooth, charming, action man, Conway is clearly older and lacks that charm, instead seeming a bit goofy at times (although Conway probably looks closer to the character as depicted in the comics). This seems to be a largely held consensus, and led to Byrd reprising the role of Tracy for the third and fourth feature films, as well as the television show. Overall, Dick Tracy is a decent enough crime film, with a mix of action, mystery and some comedy, with a film-noir feel that makes things a little more dramatic, alongside incorporating some more elements of the comics. There’s a clash in tone between a gritty murder drama and the more silly comical aspects, and some plot points which aren’t fully resolved, but it’s an easy and quick watch that holds most of its elements together well.