Fates Worse Than Death: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion

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A rash of hijackings and acts of sabotage plagues the trucking industry. Because these crimes are disrupting not only regular business shipping but the transport of sensitive military technologies, the government steps in to investigate. The heads of the four big trucking lines that make up the Interstate Truck Owners’ Association meet in their office with special agent Hal Duncan (Walter Reed). With his assistant Sam Bradley (John Pickard), Hal tries to get to the bottom of the mystery by riding along, tracking the hijackers, and gathering evidence.

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Little does he know that the mysterious “Chief” to whom the hijackers report is one of the four bosses of the Association! The Chief meets with his henchmen behind a mirror of one-way glass in an anonymous office: even they do not know his real identity (and neither do we, until the last chapter, although it isn’t hard to guess). Hal soon realizes what is going on when the hijackers are able to coordinate attacks based on information that only the four bosses have. He can only trust his partner Sam, the Association’s secretary Kay Roberts (Mary Ellen Kay), and his gut, but he’s determined to find out the truth in the 1951 serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion!

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Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion is on the shorter side (under three hours), which seems typical of the serials Republic was producing in the early 1950s. I’ve compared the serials from the ’50s unfavorably to those from the ’30s for being simplistic and routine, even when dealing with fantastical concepts, but Government Agents held my interest with well-done action and effects. Stuntmen Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel are onboard to coordinate some excellent fights, including an inventive, acrobatic brawl that takes place on a dock; without overstating it, this and other fights reminded me of the choreographed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fights of Jackie Chan’s oeuvre. The effects and miniatures are courtesy of the Lydecker brothers, those workhorses of Republic’s model shop, showing why they were legendary in the business (although water effects continue to be one area in which the small scale is clear on screen: below a certain size, waves and splashes just don’t look right, even when slow motion is used). And although there isn’t a cast of thousands, the number of characters isn’t so small that the world of the story feels too small.

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I enjoyed Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion well enough, but it’s hard not to detect a bit of bait-and-switch in its gloriously clumsy title (not to be confused with 1949’s Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc. or 1953’s Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders) and the proto-Drew Struzan-style poster, which suggests sci-fi with a side of superheroics. Well, there are government agents in the serial, and the atom-age symbolism is justified by the presence of refined uranium, radar equipment, and electronics being among the goods the truck hijackers are stealing, but that high-tech equipment is for the government: it never actually sees use on screen. The real meat of the action–car chases, fist- and gunfights, traps and cave-ins and explosions–could have been filmed at any time in the previous two decades. (Even the perils that could be termed science-fictional–capsules of poison gas, hidden radio transmitters for eavesdropping, a truck driven by remote control–were being featured in the serials of the 1930s.)

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And what of the “foreign government” the Chief is selling his plunder to? I wonder which government that could be? Like the pre-war serials, Government Agents is coy about naming names, or even ideologies: the uranium, hand grenades, and other goods are necessary for American “defense,” but the Chief’s interest in it is purely monetary. What his foreign customers plan to do with it isn’t his problem. The two main thugs, Regan and Cady (played by Dick Curtis and Fred Coby), might as well be working for the invading Lunarians of Radar Men From the Moon for all their activities reflect any real-world context. On the other hand, of course it wasn’t necessary to name names for the audience to get it, and more explicit references would have both detracted from the serial’s escapist quality and dated the material quickly.

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Although the villains’ organization is never referred to as the “Phantom Legion” within the story, it’s an accurate description of the group, so shadowy that even its members don’t know who their leader is, their actions cloaked in mystery so that the heroes never know from which direction the next strike will come. It’s also worth calling attention to the frequency with which that word, “phantom,” is used in serials and pulps: how fitting that entertainments that reflected popular unease and political paranoia, but rarely named their targets specifically, would cast their villains as invisible, pervasive, and essentially unknowable sources of evil. A serial could tease fears that villains were out there, perhaps hiding behind the faces of friends or acquaintances, but that by their nature they would eventually be conquered by goodness, law, and order. I’m certain that it was with an awareness of the word’s connotations and history within the genre that George Lucas chose the much-ridiculed title “The Phantom Menace” for his Star Wars prequel, which also delved into the political conspiracy at the root of his imagined Galactic Empire.

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Finally, the rather mundane plot makes some of the crazier set pieces all the more surprising: in Chapter Three (“The Death Trap”), Hal needs to stop a train before it rolls over a section of the track that has been rigged with dynamite. He has little time to spare, so he . . . charters a plane? Yes! And then when he has Sam buzz the train to convince the engineer to put the brakes on, the engineer waves them off, thinking they’re joyriding, so he . . . jumps out of the plane in front of the speeding train! Well, what would you do? The cliffhanger at the end of the chapter shows the train rumbling over the parachute laid across the tracks. Other chapters include a mine tunnel race on handcars; an out of control speedboat; and a stolen gas tanker used to create a trail of fire on the road. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but it’s rarely boring.

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What I Watched: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (Republic, 1951)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: There were several good chapter titles, including “Doorway to Doom,” “Sea Saboteurs,” and “Perilous Plunge” (what can I say, I’m a sucker for alliteration), but I’ll give the award to Chapter Five, “Deadline for Disaster” (alliteration!).

Best Cliffhanger: There’s quite a bit of vehicular mayhem in this serial, fitting for a case involving hijacked trucks. It’s a tough call, but I’m going to single out Chapter Six, “Mechanical Homicide” (another great chapter title, weakened only by the fact that it doesn’t involve a robot). One of the trucking bosses, Crandall (Arthur Space, whom we last saw in Panther Girl of the Kongo) is planning to defend all of his shipments with armed guards, a decision that puts him in the crosshairs of the Chief and his criminal organization. The Chief has Regan and Cady attach a remote control device to one of the trucks they’ve stolen, with instructions to fill it with explosives and ram it into Crandall’s home, killing him. Hal spots the pair testing the remote control truck and confronts them; after a struggle he is knocked out and locked in the truck’s cab, so that he will be eliminated at the same time as Crandall. With Regan controlling it from outside, Hal can’t stop the truck even after he comes to and realizes what is happening. Through shots from the speeding truck’s POV, the audience sees what Hal sees, swerving through Crandall’s upscale neighborhood, straight toward his house. The chapter ends with the truck bomb slamming into Crandall’s house (or does it?), resulting in an enormous explosion (one of many in this serial).

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Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: No one chapter stands out, but the resolution to “Mechanical Homicide” is typical: in the next chapter, a shot of Hal jumping out of the cab just in time is included, and it’s revealed at the next meeting of the Association that Crandall is alive and well, the truck having only hit his garage. As I said, several cliffhangers involve crashes or explosions of one kind or another, and inevitably Hal is saved by leaping out of the way at the last minute. This was standard operating procedure for Republic by this time.

Sample Dialogue: “This is the soap powder you boys have been looking for, but I don’t think you want it–it really is soap!” –Sam, after Hal has tricked Regan and Cady into hijacking a shipment with disinformation that uranium has been disguised as soap (Chapter Nine, “Peril Underground”)

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What Others Have Said: “Almost always in serial fights, the stuntmen wore hats, fastened to their heads by elastic bands, screening their faces so that telling them from the actors they represented was difficult. (That also answers the question: Why don’t their hats fall off during a fight?)” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: As promised, next week I’ll look at The Green Hornet Strikes Again.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Archer (1940)

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For generations, members of the Bellamy family have lived in Garr Castle, an actual European castle brought to America stone by stone and maintained as a tourist attraction. According to family lore, a mysterious archer has appeared in times of trouble to protect the Bellamys. Now that Abel Bellamy has managed to put his brother (and rightful heir) Michael out of the way (framing him and then arranging for the derailment of the train taking him to prison), he has closed Garr Castle to the public and is using it as a base of operations for his diverse criminal enterprises. His henchman Brad, dressed in the Green Archer’s costume and mask, serves to keep intruders off the property and keep alive the legend of the family’s protector. Abel even goes so far as to invite Michael’s wife Elaine to the castle and then hold her prisoner, guarded by the matronly Mrs. Poole in one of the secret chambers that honeycomb the castle.

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Despite his aloof posture, Abel doesn’t quite have everything under control: insurance investigator (and friend of Michael Bellamy) Spike Holland has been snooping around, suspicious of Abel’s version of events. He’s even arranged to move Elaine’s sister Valerie Howett and their father into the Lady’s Manor next door to the castle so they can keep an eye on Abel’s comings and goings. Worst of all, another Green Archer has inserted himself, sending warnings via arrow and protecting Spike and the Howetts from Abel’s deadly schemes, and this Green Archer seems to know the castle grounds and its secret passages as well as any of Abel’s henchmen. With the stranger’s help, Spike Holland hopes to bring Abel Bellamy to justice, clear Michael’s name, and rescue Elaine in the action-packed 1940 serial The Green Archer!

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It’s fair to say that archery has experienced a tremendous vogue in the last decade and a half, probably beginning with Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Legolas in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and getting major boosts from Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a renaissance in both comics and films for Marvel’s Hawkeye, and the popularity of DC’s Green Arrow on TV’s Arrow. But archers have always had at least some presence in popular culture, most descending from Robin Hood, to whom the Green Archer owes a debt in terms of costume, methods, and mission. Aside from the loose cloth that covers his face, the Green Archer looks very much like the stereotypical medieval woodsman, with a peaked cap, tights, and jerkin.

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The Green Archer was based on a 1923 novel by Edgar Wallace (which I haven’t read); I assume there were quite a few changes in turning the book into a serial, but at least on film the title character has much in common with the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro: although superficially similar to the masked superheroes just coming into vogue, the Archer has a narrow mission of righting a wrong rather than a mandate to protect the public at large. During the course of the serial, several characters are teased as being the real Archer–Parker Howett (Forrest Taylor) always seems to come into the room just after the Archer has left; Howett is a crack shot with a bow and arrow, but so are Henderson the butler (Herbert Evans), and even Spike Holland (Victor Jory, sounding a lot like Burgess Meredith) himself–but his true identity isn’t revealed until the final chapter. (It isn’t hard to guess the solution, but I’ll leave it to viewers to figure out for themselves.)

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As in a lot of serials, there are several genres mixed together, but in The Green Archer the dominant idiom is gothic: although the compositions and staging rarely rise above competent, there are many scenes set at night or bathed in shadow, creating an oppressive gloom, and the fact that the heroes literally live next door to the villain (and the two parties are constantly crossing into each other’s territory through invasion or abduction) gives events an air of cat-and-mouse.

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More importantly, the castle is full of secret passages and listening devices, leading to overheard conversations and mysterious screams, and multiple tableaux of imprisonment and enclosure. All kinds of death traps await the foolhardy visitor to Garr Castle as well, including such classics as the spiked ceiling that slowly descends to crush its victims; the oubliette that fills with water; and even a false floor that gives way into a pit of flames. That’s not even mentioning the vicious guard dogs.

Such things are clichés, already familiar to me in childhood from the Indiana Jones movies, Goonies (itself a throwback to the adventures of Our Gang, the Bowery Boys, and the like), and countless other shows, but they are presented in The Green Archer in a high style that reminds me more of Richard Sala or Lemony Snicket, artists who take such stock elements to mannered extremes, refining the iconography and intrigues of the genre into a nearly injectable concentrated form.

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Also gothic is the theme of the double that runs through this serial. No serial is as consistent in exploring and developing thematic symbols as a feature might be, but there are several instances of lookalikes and mistaken identity. The most notable is the fact that there are two Green Archers, one good and one evil. Sometimes the duplication is played for laughs, as when comic-relief henchman Dinky (Kit Guard) frequently attacks Brad, the Archer in Abel Bellamy’s employ, or when Dinky trusts the unknown Archer, thinking that it’s Brad in costume. Other times, the question of which is which is a matter of life and death.

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There’s also a two-chapter sequence in which Spike is impersonated by Madison, a master of disguise who makes himself up to look just like the investigator so he can steal a formula for synthetic radium (the only plot element that really dates the serial: as mentioned last week, secret formulas and inventions just waiting to be lifted by spies or criminals were all over the popular fiction of the 1930s and ’40s). Spike faces off against the impostor (who is of course played by Jory when “in disguise;” the inevitable fistfight gets around this by using wide shots and keeping hats firmly on both stunt performers’ heads), and for a while turns the tables by taking Madison’s place.

More traditionally gothic is the contrast made between Abel the usurper and his brother Michael. The burdens of lineage are a frequent theme of gothic novels, and although Garr Castle isn’t cursed as such, it’s telling that Abel claims he has always hated the place and is happy to close it down. The phantom archer that protects the family is a symbol that Abel tinkers with at his peril: by using it for his own evil ends, he invites destruction.

Abel Bellamy (James Craven) is a captivating villain, cool and arrogant, even amused that Spike Holland should be foolish enough to tangle with him, until things start to slip from his control and he starts to get rattled and increasingly unhinged. It’s the kind of role Vincent Price or Peter Cushing would get in a few decades, and Craven plays it to the hilt. Without him and Jory as Spike centering the action, the multiple subplots and large cast of characters would spiral into confusion; although the Green Archer is the title character and a vital piece of the story, the conflict is really a chess game (or a card game; see below) between two expert players.

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However, much of the serial is executed with tongue firmly in cheek; James Whale had tweaked gothic conventions in The Old Dark House, and even Universal’s monsters were starting to deviate from the pure horror that had made them famous, so perhaps the filmmakers simply assumed that no one would be able to take this material seriously. As Alan G. Barbour notes, Columbia descended into comic treatments in the early 1940s: “director James Horne took over and serials like The Iron Claw, Deadwood Dick, The Green Archer and The Spider Returns set serial fans’ funny bones in motion with their ludicrous sight gags and ridiculous situations (i.e., gangsters playing jacks, hanging out their laundry, wearing silly party hats, etc.).” (In The Green Archer, Bellamy’s gang is shown playing tiddly-winks during their down time, a scene apparently important enough to be included in the “coming next chapter” teaser.)

There are several characters who are primarily comic: bumbling police captain Thompson (Fred Kelsey) is easily turned against Spike and spends much of his time trying to apprehend the investigator. Bellamy’s henchman Dinky is apparently supposed to be English, calling his boss “Guv’nor” and intermittently saying his lines in a Cockney accent, and as mentioned he gets into lots of slapstick trouble when he can’t tell the two Archers apart. Dinky gets a few moments to shine at the end, however: of all Bellamy’s henchmen, he’s the only one who sticks with him and seems to care what happens to him. Still, for the most part I found this serial more over-the-top than deliberately ridiculous; a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one. The Green Archer isn’t anywhere near as dark (or as well-executed) as the superior Gang Busters, but there’s a similar fascination with the underworld and the broad variety of types found among criminals.

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As for unintentional comedy, there are so many fistfights in this serial, and most of them begin so abruptly, that I came to expect one practically any time either the hero or the bad guys entered a room. The way the players charge at each other, you could add a ringside bell to the soundtrack to signal the beginning of the mayhem and it wouldn’t be too out of place. The fights don’t look quite as silly as those Columbia would stage for the Batman serials later in the decade, but that’s a low bar to hurdle. Compared to Columbia’s Batman, the Green Archer is seriousness incarnate: a creature of the night, able to strike terror into the hearts of criminals (a superstitious and cowardly lot), both a dark knight and a detective–hey, this is good stuff! Somebody should publish a graphic novel about this character.

What I watched: The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940)

Where I watched it: Pacific Entertainment’s DVD, a sloppy transfer from an obvious videotape source. I wouldn’t recommend it unless, like me, you found it at a bargain price.

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “The Devil’s Dictograph” (Chapter three). There are several good chapter titles, even if they are given to puffery: there is both a necklace and a mirror of treachery, not to mention a “deceiving microphone.”

Best cliffhanger: Abel Bellamy’s criminal syndicate grows larger and more elaborate as the serial progresses and he calls in more exotic accomplices to get rid of Spike Holland. By Chapter nine (“The Mirror of Treachery”) he has lured Spike and Valerie (Iris Meredith) out to a roadhouse in the country, and when they make a break for it, Abel summons a “crook aviator,” a pilot who drops actual bombs on the couple’s car from a plane. They hide in a small roadside shack, which is completely obliterated by one of the falling bombs.

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: There aren’t any examples of the “rewritten history” cheat, but there are a few cliffhanger resolutions that test credulity. Several times the Green Archer shows up to pull Spike out of a deathtrap, and in a few cases he shakes off seemingly life-threatening injuries. The most suspicious is at the end of Chapter ten (“The Dagger That Failed”), in which Spike opens a safe in Abel’s office, setting off a booby trap that blasts him with a double-barreled shotgun at point blank. Spike certainly looks as if he’s been struck, but at the beginning of the next chapter he recovers and is completely fine, without so much as a mention of a “bullet-proof vest” or other narrative excuse. Pretty fishy if you ask me.

Sample dialogue: “We’re playing a game and you’re dealing from the bottom. But I’m holding a hand you’ll never beat: the law!” –Spike Holland to Abel Bellamy, Chapter Nine (“The Mirror of Treachery”)

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What others have said: “Victor Jory had long since established himself as an excellent film and stage actor, appearing in many quality productions (including Gone With the Wind), so his tour of duty as a matinee star was strictly a lark. . . . James Craven was always good for a few laughs as he seemed always to play a hypertensive villain in vehicles like The Green Archer, White Eagle and Captain Midnight. His henchmen never could do anything right, and Craven’s ranting and raving grew progressively wilder with each chapter.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s next: Join me and help solve a mystery at the circus in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

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.