Spy Smasher takes place in the days before Pearl Harbor, when America had not yet entered the war but was growing increasingly concerned with Axis activity abroad (the screenplay was already completed when America entered World War 2, which left Republic just enough time to make sure the villains were officially identified as Germans; the script originally made the heavies agents of an unnamed power, like His Excellency in King of the Texas Rangers). As the serial begins, the mysterious Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond) is investigating a Nazi headquarters in occupied Paris when he’s captured by Gestapo agents. After being tortured and refusing to “confess” that he’s acting on authority from the United States government, he’s sentenced to be shot. However, Pierre Durand (Franco Corsaro), a Vichy French officer unwillingly cooperating with the Germans, manages to fake Spy Smasher’s execution and ships him out of the country unharmed. Later, in the United States, the Gestapo agent who presided over Spy Smasher’s execution encounters what appears to be the dead hero on a train and attacks him; the real Spy Smasher then shows up to help his lookalike, throwing Lazar from the train. We then learn that Spy Smasher is really Alan Armstrong, an American war correspondent who supposedly died in a plane crash in France a year ago, but who has really been working against the Nazis as the mysterious Spy Smasher. His lookalike is his twin brother Jack, who is pleased to learn that Alan is still alive and agrees to help him in his fight against the Nazi spies, who– as Alan has learned–are now infiltrating the United States. From this point on, Spy Smasher and Jack do almost constant battle against the spies, who are headed by a Nazi officer known as the Mask (Hans Schumm), smashing one villainous plot after another.
Like all critics and reviewers, I possess a contrary streak, which makes it a little difficult in reviewing a serial like Spy Smasher; it’s so well-established as an all-time classic of the genre that one is tempted to dissent from the popular view. However, the fans of Spy Smasher shouldn’t fear any carping from me; I completely agree that it’s truly one of the greatest, most exciting, and most entertaining movie serials ever made. I usually dislike piling on superlative after superlative in a review, but Spy Smasher deserves them.
It’s amazing to note how much of Spy Smasher greatness rests on the shoulders of just three men–star Kane Richmond, stuntman David Sharpe, and director William Witney. Richmond is onscreen for almost the entire serial, and has to carry many scenes by himself. Fortunately, he’s completely up to the challenge; Richmond not only looks every inch a classic action hero, but is also fully capable of handling dialogue with charm and conviction. He does a fine job of differentiating his two characters, making Jack seem more easy-going and impetuous than the serious and level-headed Alan; throughout the serial, you find yourself forgetting that the same actor is playing both roles. Dave Sharpe also does yeoman’s work in this serial, doubling both of Richmond’s characters and turning in spectacular stuntwork in every chapter.
And then there’s Witney, who keeps the serial going at an impressive pace, devising one startling sequence after another without ever making the action scenes seem redundant–as they often would in most of Republic’s post-1942 serials. Spy Smasher is one of the last Republic serials to set most of its action setpieces in actual plants and factories, providing a fascinating variety of backdrops for races, chases, and shootouts. It’s difficult to pick a highlight among the many action sequences that dot the serial; for starters, there’s the sequence in which Spy Smasher climbs up a unique tower-like building to do battle with henchman Ken Terrell, the fight at the restaurant in Chapter Five that leads to a chase–which leads into another fight–which leads into a memorable shootout in a narrow hall, the incredible fight/chase in the warehouse in Chapter Eight, the protracted gunfight at the clay works in Chapter Ten, and the climactic fight between Spy Smasher and villain Tristram Coffin. Any one of these sequences would be the action centerpieces of a feature film–and of many a serial as well–but here they’re merely a few of the many standout scenes on display.
Credit should also Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland, the writing team responsible for Spy Smasher. They provide a very effective framework to hang the action on, while also allowing for quick but effective moments of real character interaction–particularly in the scenes between the Armstrong brothers, Admiral Corby, and his daughter–which deepen our interest in the fight scenes by giving us an actual fondness for the protagonists. Intelligently, the writers keep moving the story from location to location and thus avoid a feeling of repetition; our hero moves from Paris to the United States to the French island territory of “Martinidad” and back to the States again, where he spends the rest of the serial. However, before the stateside action can start feeling too repetitive, the writers start the wheels of the story rolling towards the climax, starting the villains’ downfall in motion in the tenth chapter and giving real excitement to the finale.
Thanks probably to the serial’s last-minute restructuring as a wartime vehicle, the writers also are restrained–and therefore more effective–in the use of propaganda. There are none of the pompous flag-waving speeches that crop up in later wartime serials from both Republic and Universal; heroes and villains are quickly established as such and the point is not belabored. The final scene is particularly effective for its simplicity: instead of reciting a patriotic speech to the accompaniment of stirring music, Richmond quietly remembers a key supporting character who died to help bring about the happy ending.
Although Richmond carries the bulk of the serial’s dialogue scenes, Spy Smasher’s supporting cast in an excellent one. The henchman pack is strong, led by the cagy, quiet-spoken Paul Bryar, who is very effective as in an underplayed way. Tom London and Richard Bond also appear throughout the serial as subordinate action heavies, while Crane Whitley, Carleton Young, and George J. Lewis have smaller showcases as other points in the cliffhanger. The chief villain, Hans Schumm as the Mask, does little more than give orders and concoct schemes for his henchmen to follow, but is properly snarling and arrogant in his part, with flashes of fiendish glee; unlike some serial brains heavies, his hulking physical presence is fully as intimidating as his glowering facial expressions. Tristram Coffin is convincingly suave and ingratiating as Drake, the friendly television reporter who is really the Mask’s top espionage operative, while John James–usually a clean-cut juvenile in Republic’s B-westerns–is good as his furtive assistant.
Sam Flint is upright and dignified as the Naval Intelligence chief, retired Admiral Corby; he gets in on more action here than in any of his other serials (save Blake of Scotland Yard), fearlessly shooting it out with the villains despite his snow-white hair; he succeeds in making his character seem like one of the few senior intelligence operatives in in serials that really deserves his high position. Marguerite Chapman, as his daughter, has little screen time but is so poised, thoughtful-looking, and beautiful that she’s pleasant to watch no matter how briefly she’s on film; her display of emotion at the death of that aforementioned supporting character is truly touching; the look of sorrowful loss on her face is something few serial heroines could have pulled off.
Rudolph Anders plays a Nazi officer in the first chapter, and Henry Zynda is the Gestapo agent Lazar. Franco Corsaro is enthusiastic and likable as Durand, Spy Smasher’s partner and ally during the Martinidad sequence, and Georges Renavent is perfect as the slimy, treacherous Martinidad governor. Yakima Canutt, Duke Taylor, Bud Wolfe, Jimmy Fawcett, Tom Steele, Johnny Daheim, Loren Riebe, Ken Terrell, Carey Loftin, and David Sharpe all put in appearances as henchmen, in addition to providing the wonderful stuntwork. Vinton Haworth, later a memorable villain on Walt Disney’s Zorro TV show, appears as an honest camera store clerk, while a very young Bob Wilke (prominently featured in High Noon and many other memorable film and TV westerns), appears as one of Admiral Corby’s men.
The final ingredient in the near-perfect blend that makes up Spy Smasher is Mort Glickman’s score, which incorporates Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to memorable effect. If I haven’t had anything critical to say about Spy Smasher, it’s because the serial is practically perfect, representing the peak of Republic’s serial production. None of the studio’s following chapterplays succeeded in matching it, and few of the ones that preceded it duplicated its blend of appealing acting and inventive action to such an ideal degree.