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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"Gangbusters"; Universal, 1942

I'm a big CSI fan, the original show, not Miami, I can't stand Caruso. Does he have to do every scene with his head cocked at an angle while deadpanning his lines and making sure to give a Shatneresque pause every forth word? Would it kill him to smile now and then? Cripes he makes Eeyore sound like Mister Rogers.

Sorry about the diatribe. What I was wanting to talk about was how CSI followed the long tradition of the police procedural, like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books and Jack Webb's Dragnet and Adam 12 TV shows, which detailed how investigations are handled from start to finish. CSI went one better by demonstrating the latest in science and lab work that is used to solve crimes.

Gangbusters (1942) sits squarely in the middle between the two. Based on an anthology radio show which dramatized actual cases from police files across the country, much like Dragnet would do in the fifties and sixties. One of the things the show highlighted was police investigative procedures and the latest in lab techniques. Though the serial is a sci-fi/horror inspired thriller, it incorporates many real police investigative techniques making it an educational as well as entertaining piece of film making from the Golden Age.

The City (never identified) is being besieged by a wave of terror from a group calling itself the League of Murdered Men. Banks are robbed, buildings are exploded, innocent people are gunned down for no reason. Chief O'Brien (Joseph Crenshaw) puts his best man on the job, Lt. Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor) over the objections of Mayor Hansen (George Watts). Seems Bill's younger brother was sent to prison and Hansen isn't sure whether Bill is trustworthy or not, even though Bill has proved his brother's innocence and gotten him a pardon from the Governor. Bill's brother contacts him and says he has some information about the League and will tell him about it after he is released.

Chief O'Brien is given a message that the League of Murdered Men will be broadcasting a series of demands that night. Bill sets up several police cars to triangulate the signal. That night he, his partner Tim Nolan (Robert Armstrong), Mayor Hansen, reporter Happy Haskins (Richard Davis), and news photographer Vicky Logan (Irene Hervey) gather in O'Brien's office to listen to the broadcast.

The broadcast is made by a man calling himself Professor Mortis (Ralph Morgan). He says that the wave of terror will stop only when justice has been served to he and his wronged men. If the citizens will get rid of the entire current city office holders, including judges, the mayor, and chief of police the League of Murdered Men will disappear. If not the city will be brought to it's knees. The choice is theirs.

Bill tracks down the broadcast and finds that Mortis had made it from a patrol car. The officers in the car are unconscious but alive. Prof. Mortis has left a note in the car, taunting the police about how ineffective they will be to stop him.

The next day Bill's brother shows up having come straight from prison. In the chief's office, he tells how he was approached to join the League of Murdered Men. Before he can reveal any names he is shot by Taboni (William Haade) disguised as a window cleaner. Dropping to the ground floor, his partner is shot and killed by Bill from a window. Taboni jumps into a car driven by Halliger (Ralf Harolde) but not before Vicky snaps a shot of Taboni.

Halliger takes Taboni to Mortis' hideout under the subway. He tells how Taboni's picture got taken. Mortis says that it is time for Taboni to join the League. All he has to do is be captured, then die in jail and Mortis will collect his body and bring him back to life as he has done for the others. Taboni isn't too keen on the idea until he realizes that if he says no the League will simply kill him there and not bring him back. Mortis doesn't want him captured in the city, he gives Taboni some powder to kill himself with then has Halliger take him to collect his things before heading to an out of the way airport.

Back at police headquarters, Bill finds out from fingerprints that the man he shot turns out to have already died in prison months ago. He also shows signs of having had plastic surgery. Bill hasn't got time to ponder such impossibilities, he just wants the killer of his brother. Prints on the bullet that did the deed, and Vicky's picture turn out to belong to a known thug named Taboni. Bill discovers a phone number hidden in his brother's watch.

He and Tim trace the number to an attorney's office and from there to Taboni's rooming house. The land lady tells Bill that Taboni has moved out, mentioning an airport. Bill and Tim race to the airport, Vicky and Happy have been following the two policemen to be the first on the scene for the capture.

Everyone arrives as the plane is about to take off. Bill jumps aboard the plane while Tim exchanges gunfire with Halliger. Halliger hits the tire of Tim's patrol car, allowing him to drive away with out being pursued. Bill and Taboni struggle over a gun, which goes off, hitting the pilot. Bill subdues Taboni but finds the pilot dead. Jumping into the pilot seat Bill pulls the plane out of a dive, though the plane glances off an antennae on a building.

Bill has two problems. One he has never flown a plane before, and two he discovers by seeing the shadow of his plane that part of the landing gear has been damaged. Tim sees the trouble and while Happy grudgingly changes Tim's tire, Tim radios a description of Halliger's car to the police dispatcher, then heads for the control tower to help talk Bill through a landing.

Amazingly Bill manages to set the plane down with only a minor crack up. He and Taboni survive without a scratch. Taboni is taken to jail where he refuses to talk. Later he is visited by Barnard (Victor Zimmerman) a member of the League posing as Taboni's brother-in-law. He tells Taboni to take the powder Mortis gave him at nine P M sharp and then stage it so it looks like he hanged himself with his necktie so their won't be an autopsy. Taboni reluctantly agrees.

Barnard returns to jail that night on the pretext of getting Taboni 's signature on a power of attorney so that his "sister" can use his money to hire a lawyer for him. Taboni is discovered dead. Barnard calls a "funeral parlor" to collect the body. The body is taken to a house in the suburbs, where Mortis brings Taboni back to life. Taboni is informed by Mortis that he has to do everything Mortis tells him, otherwise Mortis won't give him the pills that will keep him alive and Taboni would drop dead in a couple of days.

Mortis' police informant notifies him through a paper boy that Bill and Ted are searching garages for the car Halliger escaped in. He dispatches Halliger and Mason (George Lewis) to move the car. Bill and Tim have already found the car. The parking attendant makes a run for it and Bill pursues him in the car. Just then Halliger and Mason pull in to the garage and Bill has to swerve to avoid a collision, he leaps to safety from the car when it crashes though the safety gate on the car elevator shaft and crashes several stories below.

Just then Tim rushes up and the four men engage in a shootout. Mason is shot in the arm before he and Halliger manage to escape. Bill calls in a description of the car and the two men. Halliger takes Mason to his apartment building and hires a local small time hood to ditch the car for him. The man is caught trying to ditch the car and spills what he knows to Bill.

Mortis's informant gets this information to him and he has Halliger contact Mason, telling him to get out of town. Mason is leaving just as Bill and Tim pull up. Hiding in a vestibule he manages to not be seen by the two detectives as they enter the building. Once they are inside he tries for a getaway. Just then Vicky and Happy arrive, having overheard Bill's radio call about Mason.. Vicky spots Mason's bullet wound. Mason pulls out a gun, slugs Happy with it, then forces Vicky to drive him away in Bill's patrol car.

When Bill finds out what happened he immediately orders roadblocks set up on all of the roads going out of town. Mason hears this over the police radio and has Vicky drive toward town. Bill realizes Mason would be listening in and takes a desperate chance. Knowing two patrolmen assigned to a bridge leading out of town speak fluent Spanish, he radios them in Spanish to ignore his next order in English, then orders them in English to leave their area as Mason obviously won't try that way. Then he and Tim race for the area.

Mason falls for the ruse and when he gets to the bridge realizes he's been tricked. He forces Vicky out on the running board so the police won't shoot at him, then tries to race across the bridge before it can be blocked. Tim sees this and has Happy drive him onto the bridge where he grabs Vicky safely off the other car just as Mason swerves to avoid crashing into the cars that have manage to block his escape. He goes through the bridge railing and crashes on the highway below, his car bursting into flames.

Mortis learns of Mason's demise immediately and dispatches Halliger and Wilkinson (John Gallaudet) to Mason's apartment to make sure nothing is there that can lead back to them. Bill and Tim have had the same idea and after making sure Vicky is safe, head back to Mason's apartment. They interrupt Halliger and Wilkinson burning some papers in a fireplace. A fight breaks out, then switches to a shootout. Halliger loses his gun in the struggle but he and Wilkinson manage to get away

.

Tim calls in descriptions of the two men while Bill tries to save what was in the fire place but the papers are too badly burned to be of use. A quick search of the apartment turns up nothing. Bill takes the gun Halliger dropped back to headquarters where the prints on it show it was used by a man who had died in prison over six months ago. Tim is starting to get a little spooked and wonders if there is something to this whole League of Murdered Men business. Bill scoffs at the idea, feeling there has to be a logical explanation.

Mortis is getting fed up with Bill constantly getting the better of his men and screwing up his plans. He decides to handle the problem in a direct fashion by forcing Bill to become a member of the League. Bill receives a tip that Taboni is still alive and hiding in a warehouse. Bill goes to the address where he spots Taboni inside.

Bill goes in and gets the drop on Taboni. Wilkinson drops a rope on Bill in an attempt to capture him but instead ends up inadvertently getting it around his neck and hanging the man. Just then Tim and a group of reinforcements arrive and break down the door. Bill is rescued and a shoot out commences. One of the League is killed in the fracas but the other's escape. The body is revealed to be one more criminal who had died in prison last year and show signs of plastic surgery.

The gang head back to headquarters where they report their failure to Mortis. Mortis throws a tantrum about their incompetence. After calming down he decides on their next plan of action, blowing up the almost completed new city hall building. But first he has to do something about Taboni. Now that the police know he is alive, it is time for Taboni to become a full fledged member of the League by having his face surgically altered. Taboni is less than pleased with this announcement but since he needs those precious "stay alive" pills as he calls them, he has no choice but to go along with the idea.

I think I can safely say that this serial belongs in the top tier of the best Universal serials, along with the Flash Gordons (1936, 1938, 1940), Buck Rogers (1939), Ace Drummond (1936) and Riders of Death Valley (1941). It easily slides into that category with a well made, excellently plotted serial containing equal parts action and plot twists that you never see coming, except for maybe one, a cast of great actors investing their parts with plenty of personality, lots of informative science worked in without sounding like a lecture, and an almost overwhelming sense of dread pervading throughout. Gangbusters was one of the last truly action packed serials Universal was to make, a final bravura production before cost cutting forced more and more action to be replaced by dialogue.

The first five chapters concentrate on the hero's relentless hunt for the murderer of his brother, the tracking down of the entire gang being of only secondary concern. After he escapes the inadvertent hanging at the end of Chapter Four, the plot switches to putting vengeance on the back burner as the city gets threatened by ever more elaborate schemes of the villain, blowing up buildings and robbing lots of money while killing any bystanders who are unlucky to be around. The focus switches again after the hero is almost killed by a gun hidden in Vicky's camera in Chapter Eight. This leads to uncovering the police informer, whose identity comes as a complete shock, definitely one of the all time great unveilings in the genre. The final few chapters build toward an exciting climax as the hero eventually does get forcibly inducted into the League of Murdered Men. His extrication from this dilemma is one of the cleverest and satisfying conclusions of all time, ranking right up there with the climax of The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).

An interesting part of the serial is that almost every chapter highlights a, for the time, modern method of police lab work. This includes fingerprint analysis, ballistics, radio triangulation, tri-state blockade traffic stops, methodical searching of crime scenes and suspect dwellings, the quick yet concise detailing of descriptions to dispatchers who relay it the information to patrol cars, plus good old fashioned leg work. Though dated they help bring a sense of realism to the more fantastic living dead elements of the plot.

The special effects are kept to a minimum but the one that stands out is one of the most simple to achieve. In order to get to the gang's hideout under the subway, they have to open a trap door in the tracks in between trains, which seem to go by every thirty seconds. You see the men lift the door and drop down out of sight while a rear projected train approaches. It is so well done that it actually looks like the train passes over the spot the men were at. The danger is reinforced in the viewer's mind when the turncoat informer is inadvertently run over and squashed while trying to escape the police in Chapter Eleven. The spectacular car crashing off the bridge in Chapter Three looks to be footage taken from a feature film, the entire sequence would be reused three years later in The Master Key (1945).

I do like the economical way they handle Haade's plastic surgery transformation. Before the surgery, his appearance is highlighted by bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache. After the surgery he spends two or three chapters completely hidden behind bandages ala The Invisible Man (1933). Finally he removes the bandages to reveal the actor's normal face. All they've really done is remove the fake eyebrows and mustache. What's clever is that by letting several episodes pass with his features covered, it actually makes him appear to look more different than he actually does.

The action is all fast and furious. Bill Bannister and Tim Nolan must be two of the most in shape cops to ever work behind a desk. They are continually rushing from the lab to confront the latest suspect, getting into a fist fight, shoot out or chase, calling descriptions on the suspects, and then rushing back to the lab with new evidence. The fist fights are well done with lots of quick cutting between two sets of combatants, which is a good thing as mostly they just roll around on the floor before the good guy gets a good shot in on the bad guy's chin, or conversely the bad guy's partner cracks a chair over the good guy's head. The fights are kept to a minimum, only popping up every three or four chapters so that when they appear they are a welcome divergence from the over abundance of shoot outs we see (there are so many shoot outs with Tommy guns you would think you were watching a Warners' gangster picture).

The real asset of the film is the acting. Hero Kent Taylor was in the middle of his suave leading man/ detective hero phase of his career. Looking very Errol Flynnish with his trim mustache (an unusual affectation for a serial hero to have, mustaches were usually reserved for villains only) Taylor gives a solid performance as a dedicated cop who also hungers for some personal justice of his own. The scene where he confronts William Haade in Chapter Four is super tense as your not sure if Taylor is going to just gun down Haade and be done with it.

Robert Armstrong, here during his short tenure at Universal before Mighty Joe Young (1949) temporarily revitalized his career, gives a top notch performance. His energetic, and no nonsense performance is reminiscent of a similar role he had in G-Men (1935) with James Cagney. He doesn't so much say his lines as spit them out in short clipped sentences, barely pausing between words for inflections. Jack Webb wishes he could deliver the kind of staccato rhythm Armstrong effortlessly displays. Armstrong also comes off looking more like a real cop than star Taylor.

Irene Hervey gives an equally good performance, looking like she's auditioning for the part of Lois Lane in a future production of Superman. When she goes in to a building about to explode to get some before pictures for a before and after picture spread, she makes you believe that an intelligent woman would do such a foolhardy thing because it's all part of the job of being a crime reporter and by God no namby-pamby man is going to tell her it's too dangerous. Hah! She also demonstrates an enjoyably sneaky side as she continually weasels information from the police in a variety of ways so that she is always on the scene to get a few pictures and scoop the competition, much to the growing irritation of Taylor and Armstrong.

Ralf Harolde makes a good spearhead henchman. He is ice cold, with a sardonic wit that surfaces, usually when threatening someone to do what the League wants, blandly lamenting how it would be a shame if something happened to them while slowly cocking his revolver just to emphasis his point. When Haade whines about how Morgan is going to ruin his looks with plastic surgery, Harolde contemptuously deadpans "What looks?"

William Haade is the comic relief villain. He is genuinely amusing as the constant complainer of the gang. Besides the aforementioned complaint about losing his looks he also whines about having to kill himself, putting himself in danger to capture Taylor, not being in on an armored car heist because of his bandaged head, but funniest is the reaction to the realization that if Morgan wants to he can let Haade die. Haade's first instinct is to gun him down but the slowly dawning realization that that would seal his fate playing across his face is both sad and comical.

Of course the serial is effortlessly stolen by Ralph Morgan, with both hands tied behind his back. His Prof. Mortis is a true anomaly in serials, a cruel and sometimes sadistic villain who has a completely justified and understandable reason for his actions. You almost feel for him at times. Most of his scenes show him to be a genial man lounging around his head quarters in a comfy and warm looking dressing gown, but then at odd moments he turns on a dime to berate his men in scary tirades or to nonchalantly taunt them with the knowledge that he could let them all die any time he feels like it, usually rattling a bottle of pills while he is talking just to make sure they get the point. Bill Cline described his performance in In the Nick of Time (1984) as "like seeing a favorite uncle about to tear the wings off of a bird". It is truly unsettling.

But what really sells the part and makes it stand out as one of the all time great performances in serial history is his mad scientist rant in Chapter Two. Morgan starts out slowly muttering to himself about how good it is to be back in his old home. Then his voice starts to get louder and angrier as he details having been persecuted and hounded into hiding with criminals instead of being recognized respected for his scientific genius by the small minded people in authority who sent him to jail all because of one mistake, but he will make them all pay and pay dearly. By the end he is practically screaming like Colin Clive during the creation scene in Frankenstein (1931). Then suddenly it stops and he is calm, cool and collected again when the men bring in Haade's "body" to be revived. It is scenes like that, which make separate a good serial from a classic.

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