Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Spy Smasher (1942)

Spy Smasher is a 1942 Republic serial and it’s one of the very best of its breed.

Spy Smasher is a typical masked crime-fighter except that his target is not crime but espionage. His particular target is Nazi fifth-columnists and spies within the United States. The mastermind behind the German espionage operations in the US is a mysterious figure  known only as The Mask. The character originated with Fawcett Comics.

Spy Smasher’s real name is Alan Armstrong. He fights espionage in the US but he holds no official US government position. This was necessary because the original comic dated from a time when the US had not yet entered the war and was still technically a neutral country. The serial added the character of Alan’s twin brother Jack (both brothers being played by Kane Richmond). Jack helps Spy Smasher in his campaign against The Mask.

Spy Smasher receives unofficial support from Admiral Corby, a senior figure in US naval intelligence.

The serial opens in Nazi-occupied France, with Spy Smasher apparently about to be executed. Needless to say he pulls off an amazing escape and is soon on his way back to the United States. He has discovered the existence of a vast and sinister network of Nazi espionage and sabotage, under the direction of a sinister masked figure known (appropriately enough) as The Mask. The Mask directs operations from a U-boat.

The Mask’s activities are wide-ranging, including sabotage of American bombers by the use of a death ray, an attempt to destroy the US economy with counterfeit dollars and the theft of gold. 

The Mask’s operatives in the US include reporters for a television network. Television was an extremely popular device in the movie serials of this era. Every self-respecting diabolical criminal mastermind had access to television technology.

William Witney is regarded today as one of the best directors of serials and he does a superb job. Pacing is always a potential problem when you have a story-line spread over 12 episodes but Spy Smasher has no problems at all in that area. Witney is also quite masterful in his staging of the obligatory cliff-hanger episode endings - they’re among the very best and most exciting to be found in any serial.

The action is frenetic and non-stop. There are countless fist fights, gun duels and explosions and Witney always manages to make them more imaginative than is usual in the serial genre.

There is action in the air and on the ground, in trains and automobiles, at sea and under the sea. Every action scene seems to take place in a different setting. It’s difficult not to repeat yourself at some stage in a twelve-episode serial but Witney pulls out all the stops to ensure that it happens as little as possible.

Spy Smasher neatly avoids the worst serial cliché of all, the heroine who is constantly getting herself kidnapped by the bad guys.

The miniatures work in this serial is extremely impressive. One of the coolest gadgets is the sinister Bat Plane used by the German spies. It’s a strange futuristic design and ironically it bears some resemblance to some of the advanced experimental aircraft built by the Germans in the later stages of the war. The submarine sequences are very well done and quite convincing. Although it was done on a modest budget compared to Universal’s Flash Gordon serials the special effects and miniatures work in Spy Smasher actually look better than in Universal’s serials.

The ATI DVD release includes all twelve episodes on a single disc. The transfers are pretty decent. There are no extras. This is such a visually impressive serial that it really would benefit from a deluxe fully restored DVD or Blu-Ray release. 

Spy Smasher manages to combine all of the virtues of the serial format without any of its vices. This is one of the very best Hollywood serials, wonderfully energetic, expertly crafted with an extraordinary flair. It has the perfect mix of gadgets, action, suspense and sheer unadulterated fun. An absolute must-see if you’re a serial fan. Very highly recommended.

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