Secret Agent X-9 (1937 and 1945 Serials)
1937/1945 --- Picture: C/C Sound: C/C Extras:
D/C+ Serials: B-/C
are usually made for a young audience, but there are a few that managed to go
into directions that did not seem quite right for that age group. If The Adventures Of Captain Marvel
(the “Shazam!” version) was notoriously sadistic in how that hero took pleasure
in eliminating his enemies, then the first Secret Agent X-9 (1937)
serial is a surprise of a different sort.
It does not have much comedy, there is not a child sidekick for the kid
audience to identify with, and the writing is more mature than most
serials. This is not a propaganda
piece, like so many kids-aimed programs that were meant to assimilate young men
into conformity, or have the children of immigrants move away from their ethnic
past into being Americanized.
its demeanor stems from original creator Dashell Hammett’s desire to take a
further step towards espionage and away from the hard-boiled detective stories
he was a landmark writer of. He had
already tried this sort of thing with The Continental Op story series,
but this attempt at such a story is less known since this material has not been
seen in decades. It does not help X-9
To still be known today when this serial has not been seen since its
original release 66 years ago and that comic books, and/or comic strips are no
available either. Leslie (The Saint) Charteris
and Alex (Flash Gordon) Raymond also worked on print versions of the character. Such material
is even less likely to stay in print than novels. Now, VCI has been the company to finally uncover this little gem,
its follow-up 1945 sequel serial production, and get them out on DVD.
The image for the 1937
version is not bad for it age, offering a nice, full frame black & white
image that hints at the Film Noir era that was approaching. The copies show some age and may be a
generation or two down, but they still look decent. Who knows if Universal Pictures, who originally produced this
serial, has the negatives for this serial, or if they would ever bother to dig
them out of their vaults? Rights are
always an issue, but it will be hard to match the fine monochrome quality of
this transfer. The picture has great,
rich black like old monochrome film does, looking like the more serious crime
drama features of the day. These are on
the clean side, benefiting from the fine grain nature of the prints.
The Dolby Digital 2.0
audio is interesting, since it sounds fuller and warmer than most material from
this time – and certainly most serials on DVD.
At first, it actually sounded like something had been recently
re-dubbed, but that is not the case.
The only setback is that there is a small amount of distortion
throughout that cuts into the surprisingly good fidelity, masking the
surprising range for its time. This is
likely sourced from a magnetic mono track, which can outdo optical sound when
in good shape. The music is not
overdone either, while sound effects and dialogue come through well enough.
For the first set, all of
the extras are housed on disc one, and include well-written biographies on
Scott Kolk, Jean Rogers, and director L. Ford Beebe. Trailers for other
serials, like The Adventures of Red Ryder, Winners of the West, Gangbusters,
and Tailspin Tommy are also provided.
Starring Scott Kolk, Jean
Rogers, Monte Blue, Henry Hunter, David Oliver, Larry J. Blake, and Creighton
(Lon) Chaney (Jr.), this first serial involves stolen jewels and deadly devices
of death! That screenplay was written
by William Gittens, Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, and Leslie Swabacker; based on
the comic book by Dashell Hammett and comic strip by Charles Flanders;
Supervising Editing by Saul A. Goodkind with Alvin Todd, Louis Sackin, and L.R.
Brown; Cinematography by Richard Fryer, A.S.C.; Directed by L. Ford Beebe &
1945 version dumps the spy angle, not helped by his carrying around an ID
card! This one runs 13 chapters with
substandard cliffhangers. The
production values are not as rich. Neither
is the cinematography. The highlight is
Lloyd Bridges as the title character, who easily outshines almost the entire
cast, though the film also gives us the Asian actor who played Charlie Chan’s
Number One son, Keye Luke. He later
played a young Mr. Wong in a failed second era of that series (see the fine
Roan Group double set,) then later still the elder in flashbacks of TV’s
original Kung -Fu in the 1970s. He is a
good guy here. Benson Fong, a perennial
character actor of the time, is an enemy Japanese Imperialist agent.
also came out the year World War II ended, but this kind of propaganda was
getting played out, so this is more typical of what I feared the first serial
might be like. In many action/adventure
properties of the day, studios pushing the characters into WWII territory too
often compromised the storytelling.
This even happens to the Sherlock Holmes films, though Holmes was past
his prime in the 1940s by the book’s dating.
This ruined the animated Fleischer Superman shorts, and does not help
here either. Directed by Lewis D.
Collins & Ray Turner.
picture and sound are a tad above average, with good gray scale and deep video
black. Too bat the material was not
better. As for the extras on this
double set, they repeat on both DVDs, except for the fine commentary by the
always-reliable Max Allan Collins, author of Road To Perdition. He has done many solid commentaries for
three of his own film for Troma/Roan Group DVD, plus exceptionally informative
commentaries for VCI serials like The Phantom, and Dick Tracy, as well as the
underrated, late Film Noir Slightly Scarlet.
Add Collins interview with Beau Bridges, and Collins makes this set a
fine companion to the first.
DVDs in this second set offer the same photo galleries, trailers, and
biography/filmographies of key players in the serial. This serial also offers the usual laughs unintended.
work should not have to be Citizen Kane to be treated right. VCI not only issued both
serials, but also put them in nice double cases with good artwork, pressing
the first DVD set with spy decoder motifs on each disc. Everything deserves to be seen and issued,
since everything out there has an audience.
The 1937 Secret Agent X-9 will surprise fans of serials, spy films, and action/adventure
who though they had seen everything, while the second 1945 version makes for
a curio viewing just for Bridges alone.