Spy Smasher (William Witney, 1942)

Eclipse LogoRepublic Pictures brought the defender of democracy to life in one of the finest serial ever made. Sprung from the four-color pages of Whiz and Spy Smasher, action is abundant in this sensational serial saga concerning Spy Smasher’s efforts to prevent his Nazi nemesis, the Maskfrom crippling America’s defense effort shortly before its involvement in World War II.  Dual star Kane Richmond faces ray guns, firing squads, submarines, futuristic aircraft, and motorcycle chases all under the capable hand of veteran serial director William Witney.  From Mort Glickman’s title music reworking Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to its final fade-out, Spy Smasher represents the serial form at its most energetic and thrilling.

Alan Armstrong is Spy Smasher, an independent American fighting Nazi activities abroad.  The serial opens in France where Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond) is captured but escapes execution, enabling him to return to the USA.  There, he is reunited with his twin brother Jack and meets his fiancé Eve Corby (Marguerite Chapman) and her father Admiral Corby (Sam Flint).  With their help, Alan battles Nazi mastermind The Mask (Hans Schumm) and his various schemes to undermine American power and influence.  Over the course of the serial, Spy Smasher prevents The Mask from flooding the USA with counterfeit cash, escapes a sinking submarine, destroys a secret Nazi Bat Plane, disables a hidden Nazi ray gun, and races around on motorcycles, on (and behind) motorboats, atop speeding cars, and even on a handcar through an underground, fire-filled tunnel.  Spy Smasher is far more episodic than the other serials in this proposed set, pitting Alan against The Mask’s evil plots one after another.  While this may be an impediment to binge-watching today, it was likely unremarkable to Saturday morning movie theatre attendees watching serials as weekly episodes in any event. What matters most is the thrills and chills, of which Spy Smasher is full, and the triumph of good over evil, which is achieved in an explosively satisfactory dénouement.

Well-made and well-played, Spy Smasher deserves its beloved status among movie serial fans.  Kane Richmond is handsome and heroic while pulling double-duty as Alan and Jack Armstrong.  His performances are noticeably different between the two characters, playing Alan as a confident adventurer and portraying Jack as a well-meaning and good-hearted everyman.  Marguerite Richmond is convincing as the unwavering damsel, while Sam Flint makes the most of his supporting role as the august and unflinching military leader.  Schumm’s villain adequately fills the template for evil Nazi antagonist, while Tris Coffin is slithery and loathsome as a traitorous reporter secretly working as the Mask’s right hand heavy.  Most iconic is Mort Glickman’s rearrangement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for the serial’s title credit music, making for a bold and dramatic announcement to each episode of the chapter play.  The opening refrain used to match the Morse Code “V” (· · · —) provides a clever connection to the military battle going on overseas, the significance of espionage to both the war and the adventures of Spy Smasher, and alludes to an eventual victory (V for Victory!) both onscreen and on the front.  Production started only weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbour and so it’s interesting to consider Spy Smasher‘s role in the early days of American involvement in WWII and its minor contribution to public morale and attitudes.

Above all, Spy Smasher‘s legacy as a renowned serial rests in its commitment to action and its unsurpassed stunt work.  Aided by a fast-moving script and a collection of stunning cliffhangers, the serial portrays feats of exceptional danger and bravery that remain astounding even today.  Kane Richmond performed some of his own stunts but most of the credit belongs to Dave Sharpe and Carey Loftin, particularly their motorcycle work which is both exceptional and terrifying, and the work of director William Witney and his editors Tony Martinelli and Edward Todd to maintain the serial’s unrelenting pace.  Spy Smasher‘s stunning cliffhanger set-pieces are on display by the end of the very first episode where Spy Smasher, aboard a handcar in an underground tunnel, attempts to outrun an exploded fuel tank and an oncoming wall of fire.  He avoids his imminent immolation in the serial’s second chapter by using a grenade to collapse the tunnel behind him and snuff out the fire.  It’s a daring and enthralling sequence that sets the stage for Spy Smasher‘s array of exhilarating adventures.  From the otherworldly Bat Plane in “Stratosphere Invaders” to the fight aboard a motor boat in “Sea Raiders,” from the motorcycle chase in “Highway Racketeers”  to the vast pottery plant location in “2700 Degrees Fahrenheit,” Spy Smasher is always inventive, always eye-catching.  The epitome of its audaciousness comes in its final and legendary cliffhanger ending where Spy Smasher is shot on a highrise rooftop and falls to his death, his impact on the pavement below explicitly shown.  This is the last of multiple instances in the serial where Spy Smasher shown as gunned down only to be revealed to still be alive, but none are as graphic and as apparently final.  The twist on this ending and the resolution of the serial is easily found online in other summaries, but we’ll defer to the spirit of the movie chapter play and avoid setting it out here (hopefully encouraging someone to actually spend some time with the greatest action serial ever committed to film).

Credits:  The above summary is adapted from Republic Pictures’ 2-VHS cassette set of Spy Smasher.

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