Fates Worse Than Death: Gang Busters

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Calling the police. Calling the G-men. Calling all Americans to war on the underworld. Gang Busters, with the cooperation of law enforcement officers of the Unites States, presents a picture of the endless war of the police on the underworld, illustrating the clever operation of law enforcement officers in the work of protecting our citizens: the all-American crusade against crime!

That announcement, combined with the sounds of sirens, gun shots, and tramping chain gangs, opens each chapter of the 1942 serial Gang Busters, based on the popular radio show of the same name.

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For over twenty years, producer-director Phillips H. Lord dramatized stories of true crime with the close cooperation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. (In addition to the serial, a television series and a comic book were spun out from the original property.) On the radio, Gang Busters had a similar opening montage of sound effects and voice-over and, while based on true cases, dramatized its stories with broadly drawn characters and zingy, hard-boiled dialogue (“That music sounds pretty. . . . Now let’s have the music of the cash register opening!”). The serial, while fictional, is similar in tone, using voice-overs and newspaper headlines to give each chapter the urgency and documentary quality of a newsreel, at the same time drawing situations and characterizations straight out of contemporary gangster films.

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The action begins with a crime wave in progress: seemingly unrelated robberies and destruction are terrorizing the city. Detective Lieutenant Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor) suspects that a single gang is behind the coordinated attacks, but it isn’t until a strange message is broadcast that his suspicions are confirmed. “Hello, citizens. You are listening to the voice of Death,” begins a cool, even-toned voice over the radio (in one of many effective uses of mass media, this scene suggests the chill listeners might have gotten from programs like Suspense). The disembodied voice is that of “Professor Mortis” (Ralph Morgan), whose terroristic attacks are explicitly meant to turn the citizenry against their police and government, demanding their removal.

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Professor Mortis (“probably an assumed name,” Bannister astutely notes) claims to represent “The League of Murdered Men,” all of whom have grudges against the legal system. He promises that the attacks will continue until Mayor Hansen, Police Chief O’Brien, and every other authority is deposed. Mortis’ claim that all the members of his League have died and been brought back to life is too ridiculous to be believed, of course—but how can Bannister explain the fact that fingerprints recovered from the crime scenes match criminals who committed suicide in prison months ago? And how is it that Mortis seems to know what the police are planning at every turn?

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The police are about to get a break: Bannister’s brother, framed for a gangland murder he didn’t commit, is being released from prison, and he claims to have information about the gang and its methods. Two nosy reporters, Vicki Logan (Irene Hervey) and Happy Haskins, talk their way into accompanying Bannister (as they seem to be able to talk their way into the Chief’s office, the lab, and anywhere else they want to go). Speaking to Bannister in private, his brother says he was approached in prison and given a set of instructions for escaping; before he can finish, he is gunned down by a pair of window washers who just happened to be cleaning the windows of Police headquarters.

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The thirteen chapters that follow are full of action and intrigue: car chases and firefights, kidnapping and fisticuffs, and even the explosive demolition of the still-under-construction City Hall—with Vicki and Bannister still inside! There are twists and turns aplenty as the League of Murdered Men attempts to either draft or eliminate Bannister, and Bannister (with Vicki’s help) attempts to unravel the mystery of Professor Mortis’ identity. (Although his story is not revealed in detail until nearly the end, it’s clear from the beginning that his is a tortured soul, living only to exact revenge on those who wronged him. In comparison to the thugs who do his bidding, Mortis is cultured and intelligent: he demonstrates great scientific expertise, bringing members of his League back from the “death” he chemically induces and performing plastic surgery to hide their identities.)

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True to its subject matter (and in contrast to many serials where every character is exactly what they seem), Gang Busters sets its heroes adrift in a dangerous world where no one can be trusted. Bannister isn’t wrong: someone is leaking information from the police to the League. Is it the Mayor, suspiciously eager to get Bannister taken off the case? Is it Bannister’s assistant, Detective Tim Nolan? Even a humble newspaper seller is more deeply involved than anyone would expect.

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Then there are those fascinating characters on the margin, such as Frenchy “the Duck” (Edward Emerson, uncredited), who runs a dockside club catering to criminal types. Frenchy wants nothing more than to avoid police entanglements, but sometimes the money, she is too much to resist, mais non? If Frenchy’s establishment happens to have a water trap installed by the bootlegger who used to own the place, so much the worse for any nosy cops who blunder into it, ne c’est pas? (Yes, he is that broad: imagine Lando Calrissian crossed with Pepé Le Pew.)

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Gang Busters is also a reminder of how vital the newspapers once were as a source of up-to-the-minute information. Even more than the radio, the papers are used by both the League and the police to send messages to each other, through advertisements or headlines; they’re also a convenient way to convey exposition to the audience quickly. (MORTIS’ GANG ABDUCTS GIRL REPORTER is followed up by JOURNAL CAMERA GIRL ESCAPES FROM MURDER CAR; with all the special editions and updates, the printing presses at the Journal must never stop running.)

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Almost every chapter begins with a blazing headline and a burst of action: instead of simply rewinding to a point before the cliffhanger, as most serials do, Gang Busters stages a vignette about yet another atrocity perpetrated by the League, tying it into the peril in which we last saw our heroes. It’s very effective at catching the audience up without being too repetitive when watching several chapters in one sitting.

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Finally, Gang Busters is a very satisfying mix of down-to-earth police work and politics with a flamboyant criminal mastermind. The sciences of fingerprinting, ballistics, and radio signal triangulation are balanced with suspended animation, remote control bombs, and a gun hidden in a camera (switched with Vicki’s: the next time she takes a picture of Bannister in action—bang!). Professor Mortis himself is a great theatrical creation, a brilliantly twisted egotist with a personal vendetta against the forces of law and order; cloaked in expressionistic shadows in his lair under an active subway tunnel, performing illegal medical experiments and speaking to a terrified public over the radio “from beyond the grave,” Mortis embodies the “gangland gothic” aesthetic of the production. There’s a lot of Dick Tracy in Gang Busters, but Batman would fit right in, too.

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What I Watched: Gang Busters (Universal, 1942)
Where I Watched It: A pair of Alpha Video DVDs, sold separately. Vol. 1 contained chapters 1-6, Vol. 2 contained chapters 7-13; seriously, who watches half a serial? (It can also be seen online.)
No. of Chapters: 13
Best Chapter Title: Murder by Proxy (Chapter Eight)
Best Cliffhanger: True to serial tradition, the chapter titles often point to the peril that awaits the hero at the end of that chapter. Chapter Two, “The Death Plunge,” is one of several cliffhangers in Gang Busters involving a moving vehicle crashing or falling off a bridge or cliff, but in this case a car chase in a parking garage leads to the hero’s car plummeting several floors down an elevator shaft.
Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Alas, when will the producers of serials learn that cheaters never prosper? Gang Busters is mostly guilty of the “hero jumps out of the car/plane just before it plunges over the bridge/canyon” cheat, although most of the cliffhanger resolutions play fair. The most obvious is the cliffhanger to Chapter Ten (“Mob Vengeance”), in which Bannister attempts to redirect a truck full of dynamite (intended to blow up Police headquarters) over a bridge. In the cliffhanger, he’s still hanging on to the side of the truck when it goes over, while the driver rolls out and runs off. In the resolution, not only does Bannister jump in time, the driver—who appeared to be running off—runs headlong into a pylon and kills himself. It’s kind of hard to describe: you really need to see it to believe it.

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Sample Dialogue: “The nerve of that guy Mortis! He’ll try anything!” –Detective Tim Nolan, Chapter Seven (“The Water Trap”)
What Others Have Said:Gang Busters has exciting cliffhangers and contains some unexpected twists. The plot takes more than a few extraordinary turns, and the ending is exceptional. This is one of Universal’s most complex serials, with many chases and thrilling scenes skillfully staged in outside locations.” –Matinee Classics

Epilogue: I sought out Gang Busters on the basis of its trailer. I haven’t discussed the trailers for serials much: suffice it to say that they are examples of the “hard sell,” emphasizing the thrills and excitement awaiting audiences. Given that Gang Busters affects a breathless “breaking news” tone, it’s not surprising that the trailer would be even more over-the-top than usual. If the sequence beginning at 2:00, teasing each of the cliffhangers in compressed form, doesn’t get you excited for this film, maybe serials just aren’t for you.

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