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Category:    Home > Reviews > Serial > Adventure > Secret Agent X-9 serial sets (VCI DVD)

Secret Agent X-9 (1937 and 1945 Serials)



1937/1945 ---   Picture: C/C   Sound: C/C   Extras: D/C+   Serials: B-/C



Serials 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.


Instead, 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 & Clifford Smith.


The 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.


This 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.


The 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.


Both 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.


A 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.



- Nicholas Sheffo


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