Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Radar Patrol vs. Spy King"; Republic, 1950.

I’m just sitting here at home for the tail end of the summer, where over at the multiplexes most of the big summer blockbusters have already played and the screens are filled with good old standard meat and potato film fare while the studios gear up the major releases for fall. With that feeling in mind I thought I would highlight a good old meat and potato kind of serial. Not a major blockbuster like “King of the Rocketmen” (1949), nor an unintentional laugh inducing hodgepodge of silliness like “Zombies of the Stratosphere” (1952), “Radar Patrol vs. Spy King” (1950) falls somewhere in the middle. While it is not a great production, it isn’t an instant “camp classic” with an over stretched budget and overblown dialogue. In short it is a sturdy little, unpretentious serial that delivers exactly what the title promises, a spy thriller with a slight science fiction element.

Radar expert Joan Hughes (Jean Dean) is contacted by Mr. Lord (Tristram Coffin), head of the Radar Defense Bureau. He relates to her how during the war America was greatly menaced by a spy ring headed by the most deadly double agent in existence, a man named Baroda (John Merton). After the war, while other spy rings were rounded up, Baroda escaped capture and is still at large. His freedom could spell disaster for America. Joan is put in charge of a special project to build a ring of radar stations around the country’s borders as a defense against fifth columnists entering the country undetected. Lord gives her a sealed briefcase with the location of where she is to set up operations, and one half of a badge. The other half is carried by an RDB operator as a means of identification. This man will be working with her

The RBD operative, Chris Calvert (Kirk Alyn) is waiting for Joan outside but is knocked out by Baroda agent Ricco (Anthony Warde). After dragging the unconscious man into an alley, Ricco passes himself off as Chris and drives away with Joan, who didn’t ask for any ID. Chris recovers in time to see this and hops in his own car to stop Ricco. Ricco spots the pursuit and demands that Joan hand over the briefcase. Suspicious, she refuses. Ricco tries to grab it, but Joan fights him off and jumps out of the speeding car. Chris stops his car in time to keep from running her over and shows Joan his indentifying half of badge. Now introduced, the two agents open the briefcase and find that they are to start work at a place along the border called Keystone Station.

Ricco’s failure is reported to Baroda’s number two, Nitra (Eve Whitney), who takes this information to Baroda’s headquarters, a recently purchased war surplus cargo plane that allows him to change his location at a moments notice and thus always be one step ahead of the government. He doesn’t take Nitra’s news as being too bad. Thanks to his recently completed Radar Interceptor, Baroda can detect whenever radar is being used and so avoid that area. Baroda plans to fly around the border area using the Interceptor to try and locate the RDB station.

Days pass and work continues at the Keystone Station. After getting a working model completed that will cover a distance of only two hundred and fifty miles, Chris and Joan hear a car approaching their out in the middle of nowhere base. Chris sneaks outside and waylays the visitor (George J. Lewis), knocking him out after the surprised man pulls a gun. Bringing him inside, Chris discovers that he has made a mistake, the intruder is Manuel, an agent for the Mexican government sent as a liaison. After he is revived and apologies are accepted, Manuel tells the two RBD operatives about an unidentified plane that has been spotted several times over the past week flying around the border. Joan decides to test out their new experimental model by seeing if they can pick up this plane.

The mysterious plane is of course Baroda’s. Their use of their new radar model sets off the Interceptor. Once Baroda is sure of what area the radar beam came from he quickly has the plane turn around and fly out of range, which was a lucky break for him as Manuel was about to call out pursuit planes to bring it down. After landing at one of their many hidden airstrips, Baroda gets out a set of maps and using the coordinates picked up in the air, he narrows down where the radar station should be.

The next day Nitra shows up at the station posing as a persistent encyclopedia salesperson. She won’t go away until Joan agrees to take a free sample encyclopedia. Chris wonders what a door-to-door salesperson is doing way out there when a bomb goes off inside the book, filling the room with acid gas. The three agents rush outside half blinded. Ricco and Nitra grab Joan and push her into a car. Chris manages to wipe his eyes clear in time to see the getaway. Jumping into his own car, he heads off in pursuit. Spotting him in the rearview mirror, Nitra turns a knob on their car’s dashboard which starts smoke billowing from their exhaust. Chris is unable to see and has to bail out of his car right before it crashes into a building and explodes.

Joan is taken to Baroda’s plane, blindfolded. Baroda tries to reason with Joan to sell out her country for the obvious wealth he can give her. Joan steadfastly refuses. Nitra is all for using torture, but Baroda is too sophisticated for such crude tactics. Instead he injects Joan with Morphatol, a hypnotic drug that deadens Joan’s will and allows Baroda to use her as his own agent.

Back at Keystone Station Chris receives a mysterious phone call telling him that Joan is at a house out on the other side of the town from the station. Though suspicious, he feels that he can’t pass up an chance to rescue Joan, so he and Manuel head over to the address. Chris isn’t too surprised to find out that the address is an empty field. Certain now that the call was just a ruse to get them away from the station, Chris lead foots it back to base. He arrives just in time to see Joan come out of the station and hand a file to Nitra.

Jumping out of the car before it has even come to a complete stop, Chris and Manuel engage in a furious shoot out that ends with Nitra and Ricco getting away. Chris jumps back in his car and heads after them. Ricco and Chris exchange gunfire and the tire on Chris’ car is hit. It looks like the enemy agents will get away, but then Chris notices a trail of gas and realizes he must have hit their gas tank. He follows the trail on foot.

The trail leads to Tami’s Garage where Chris finds Tami (Ken Terrell) gassing up a new car for them. Chris tries to get the drop on all three but a fight breaks out instead. During the fight an acetylene torch gets turned on and falls next to several barrels of high grade fuel. Chris is knocked out but manages to come to in time to get out before the garage goes up in a huge ball of flame.

Back at the station, Chris finds that Joan has recovered from the Morphatol. They go through their records to determine which one was stolen. It turns out to be their shipment for the X-4 Radar parts. Chris attempts to get the latest shipment stopped but is too late. He and Joan head out along the truck route to try and head off the truck, but are again too late. They spot Ricco driving off in the truck and the hood shoots out their tire before they can pursue him. Joan radios Manuel to put out an APB on the truck. After Chris changes the tire, Manuel radios back that the truck was found abandoned and empty. Chris and Joan go to search the truck where they find a name plate from the Greenstar Laundry.

Driving over to the laundry, they are attacked by Ricco and several henchmen. Joan is hit over the head and thrown into a basket in the back of a laundry truck. Chris sees this but can’t get to the truck before it pulls out. Finishing up with his opponent, Chris heads out after the truck. After shooting the man in the back of the truck, Chris is horrified to see the laundry basket roll out of the back of the truck as he can’t avoid hitting it with his car. Seconds later he is relieved to see that Joan wasn’t in the basket anymore when she appears in the back of the truck and leaps to safety. Chris decides to let the truck get away and see if Joan is hurt. She turns out to be okay.

Later at Baroda’s plane, the master spy is gloating. Not only will the stolen parts delay the building of the radar ring, but Baroda can use the parts himself to build an anti radar devise making their radar ring useless. His gloating is short lived when he spots a box of gamma ray tubes in the supplies that had been included by mistake (Chris received a call about the mistake at almost this exact same time). Baroda knows that gamma ray tubes can be traced by radar beams. Turning on his Interceptor, sure enough Chris is attempting to track down Baroda with the tubes. Baroda tells Nitra to give the tubes to Ricco so that he can set a trap for Chris.

Back at Keystone Station Joan follows the moving path of the gamma ray tubes. When it finally stops and seems to be stationary, she gives the coordinates to Chris, who goes with Manuel to investigate. Chris and Manuel get to the area and sneak up on Ricco and his men, who just took a little too long to set up a bomb in a truck. A fight breaks out but it ends quickly when Chris is knocked into the trip wire that triggers the bomb. While Ricco and his men run away, Chris and Manuel find the bomb and throw it away from the truck before it explodes.

When this latest failure is reported to Baroda he is less than thrilled because he knows that Chris will realize that the original spot where the gamma ray tubes were detected will be the real location of his hideout. Baroda has his pilot start to prepare his plane to take off.

Chris and the rest of the good guys aren’t letting any grass grow under them either. Chris gets a series of aerial photographs for a number of different weeks of the area where they first detected the gamma rays. Careful examination with a magnifying glass shows an anomaly in the most recent pictures. Surmising it could be a disguised plane, Chris heads for his own personal plane to fly over the area and check it out.

He proves to be a canny investigator as he arrives in time to see Baroda’s plane take off. Chris radios this in and says he is going to try and follow to see where it will land. Unfortunately for Chris, Baroda is smart enough to monitor the proper radio bands and overhears Chris’ message. Taking out an over size rifle that fires exploding rocket shells, Baroda fits it into the gun turret of his ex-military plane and shoots Chris’ plane which erupts in flames before exploding. When the smoke clears Baroda curses Chris’ luck as he spots the hero floating to the ground in a parachute, well out of range of any more shells.

“Radar Patrol vs. Spy King” is a perfect example of why Republic could have been able to weather the storm of lowering audience attendance if they could have held out for few more years, or tried to move solidly into TV production. Despite some glaringly obvious inserts of older footage in some of the car chases, the originality of the story and the uniqueness of a villain operating out of an airplane exhibits a certain forward thinking on the part of the company that the serial isn’t a total rehash of older plots.

This serial was made during the time when Republic had reached the end of the amount of time they could shave off of a chapter and still get a film of releasable length, the first chapter being about twenty minutes and the other eleven clocking in at about thirteen. With such a short amount of time to get the story going, some serials have sacrificed coherent story for action and more action. Happily this is not the case here. Though the science is just as questionable as the explanation of a special light making a man invisible in the same year’s “Invisible Monster” (1950), here it contains just enough real science (radar beams bouncing off objects and causing blips on a radar screen), that the slightly exaggerated ability of the technique doesn’t strain the viewers disbelief enough to destroy the enjoyment of the proceedings.

Another asset to film is it’s cast full of familiar serial actors and talented newcomers to the genre. Kirk Alyn, still trying to escape his “Superman” typecasting, makes a good hero. Though not as flamboyant as he was in “Daughter of Don Q” (1946), he is more of the stern and serious government agent, playing it almost exactly as he had in the previous year’s “Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc.” (1949). Jean Dean comes across as one of the better heroines in these latter days. Not playing a secretary or humble assistant, Dean is a full fledged scientist who is involved in just as many fights as the hero. Her profession also lends a better reason for being constantly captured, instead of just being a hostage to lure the hero into a trap, she has actual information the villains need. Rounding out the good guys is George J. Lewis, an actor who is equally able to believably play stalwart heroes and nefarious villains. Those always a pleasure to see, Lewis is woefully under utilized in this serial, spending most of his time either waiting by the phone or knocked unconscious.

John Merton as the main villain is a surprise. Though able to portray many different kinds of thugs, he most often played those who used brute force as the only answer to a problem. Apparently his time at Columbia playing weird bald scientists in the late forties had rubbed off on this performance because he comes off as positively intellectual for about the only time in his serial career. Eve Whitney makes a good foil for Merton, playing her part like a slinky and unsophisticated gun moll in direct contrast to Merton’s almost elegant villain. Anthony Warde, who has played this part countless times, seems to be on autopilot. To be fair the short running time and large cast of main characters doesn’t give him much time to do anything but get into fights, but he could have done more than spend most of his scenes either smirking or glowering behind Merton and Whitney.

Since the science fiction elements are bare bones, making the serial more of a straight forward cops and robbers affair, there are very little in special effects, but there is plenty of the top notch Republic stunt work in evidence, with fights popping up almost five minutes into each chapter. While most are pretty repetitive two really stand out. The fight in Chapter Five is amusing to see as Dean’s stunt double mercilessly pummels her hulking opponent with her purse. What makes it funny is that just prior to the fight, Dean had mentioned her gun was in it and Republic never gave anyone a dinky little gun, no sir, it was always those long barreled revolvers. Take a minute to imagine that scene in real life and see if it doesn’t make you cringe a little in sympathy for the poor guy, heartless murderer or not. The other interesting fight is in Chapter Twelve. What makes it stand out is the setting, on Baroda’s plane while in flight. The cramped quarters of a cargo plane make for a difficult fight, and the small amount of space to move around in gives the scene a more than average amount of urgency.

People that like to look for amusing anomalies will find a great one in “Radar Patrol…”, though set in the middle of nowhere and modern day, sometimes you just need to go to a town for something, chemicals, electronics, whatever. Apparently the only town nearby for these people is one full of old wooden buildings and dirt roads. That’s right, it is the town setting they use for all of their westerns, cleverly disguised by the strategic placement of metal fuel barrels on every corner, never mind that they’re sitting on wooden sidewalks, metal barrels equal modern setting. Right? It is a minor goof in an otherwise decent effort.

One of the things I have always wondered about this serial is why it wasn’t edited into a feature for television in the sixties along with so many other titles. Most of the films were picked because it was felt they would appeal to the people who were enjoying all of the campy science fiction superhero and spy films that were so popular at the time. Out of all of Republic’s catalogue this serial was probably the closest to being like the spy films of the sixties and yet it was left out of the group. Perhaps they felt it just wasn’t exotic or outlandish enough to appeal to people like “The Black Widow” or “G-Men Never Forget” (1948) would. Who knows?

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