This cliffhanger, as you might suspect from the title, pits G-man Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) against Oyama Haruchi (Nino Pipitone), leader of the infamous Japanese spy organization known as the Black Dragon. In the first chapter, Haruchi has himself smuggled into the United States in a mummy case, despite the efforts of Rex, British agent Vivian Marsh (Constance Worth), and Chinese agent Chang Sing (Roland Got) to capture him. From then on, it’s one explosion, chase, and fight after another, as Haurchi and his vile lieutenants Ranga and Lugo (Noel Cravat and George J. Lewis) do their best to cripple the American war effort, and Bennett and his allies do their best to checkmate them.
G-Men vs. the Black Dragon stands at a crossroads in Republic serial history, looking back to the great years of innovative and imaginative serials directed by William Witney and John English, while looking forward to the enjoyable but much more formulaic chapterplays helmed by Spencer Bennet and his successors. G-Men, like Witney’s Spy Smasher the preceding year, dresses up a simple and episodic plot line of spies vs. counterspies with an incredible array of action sequences, cliffhangers, and colorful gimmicks (such as Haruchi’s suspended-animation potion or his lethal pet raven). The serial includes a couple of good action scenes set in interesting outdoor locations, but has much fewer of these scenes than earlier Republic serials did, instead emphasizing furniture-busting fistfights on indoor sets to the exclusion of other types of action; such sequences would likewise dominate most subsequent Republic outings. Unlike most of those subsequent outings, the serial retains some of the shadowy atmosphere that marked many of Witney and English’s Golden Age serials; scenes like Haruchi’s mummy-case arrival or the confrontation in the darkened apartment of the pianist Burnell are filmed in nicely ominous style by cameraman Bud Thackery.
As for the aforementioned fistfights, they’re uniformly excellent, although the absence of the acrobatic Dave Sharpe (he was serving in the Air Force at this time) is noticeable; from this point on, the taller Tom Steele or the beefier Dale Van Sickel would double for the studio’s heroes, substituting toe-to-toe slugging for Sharpe’s gymnastics. It’s Steele who doubles for hero Rod Cameron here, while Van Sickel, John Daheim, Duke Taylor, and Ken Terrell fill in for other characters. Terrell, a gymnast like Sharpe, does add some welcome acrobatics to the serial, particularly in the fight between Rex, Lugo, and Ranga in the shack in the penultimate chapter. The fight in the laundry in Chapter Nine is also outstanding, with the heroes and villains battling up, down, atop, and under a flight of stairs. The assault on a Japanese submarine that follows this sequence is memorable too, incorporating some of the aforementioned outdoor location work; other highlights include the desperate fight to rescue the heroine in Chapter Eight, and the tussle between Cameron and villain Harry Burns in Chapter Fourteen.
Writers Ronald Davidson, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland keep the serial’s somewhat repetitive plot moving swiftly from one hero-villain encounter to the next, and avoid overloading the audience with wartime propaganda; Rex Bennett’s climactic confrontation with Haruchi is terse and effective rather than long-winded, and even the (literal) flag-waving bit at the end is understated. The writers are particularly intelligent in handling the villains, making them hateful while allowing them to be competent at the same time. Unlike the bickering Axis villains in countless Universal serials, or the self-important and fallible Nazis in Columbia’s The Secret Code, Haruchi and his Black Dragons are are portrayed as unified, intelligent, and dangerous, making them much more impressive as menaces.
The writers also concoct some truly memorable cliffhangers, which are helped along mightily by Howard and Theodore Lydecker’s miniature work. The exploding paint factory at the end of Chapter One is justly one of the Lydeckers’ most famous pieces of work; its (over) use as stock footage in later Republic serials shouldn’t take away from its high quality. The Chapter Fourteen cliffhanger (with Rex Bennett’s boat sailing over a spillway), the Chapter Nine cliffhanger (with Bennett trapped aboard an exploding submarine), and the Chapter Six cliffhanger (with Bennett atop a pylon tower being approached by a chain of explosions along the power line) also show the Lydeckers’ genius to full advantage; indeed, nearly all of the cliffhangers involve a Lydecker miniature (and generally an explosion too) in one form or another. The few chapter-ending sequences that don’t utilize miniatures are memorable as well, especially the climax to Chapter Eight, in which Constance Worth is apparently skewered by an elaborate Japanese spear-gun trap.
The performers in the serial take a back seat to all the furious action, but avoid becoming ciphers, even though their stunt doubles have more screen time. Rod Cameron, in this chapterplay, proves himself as good as Ralph Byrd or Kane Richmond at combining square-jawed seriousness actual personality. While maintaining a serious and quiet-spoken manner befitting the serial’s wartime milieu, he also puts genuine energy into his characterization, showing real concern when in danger and convincingly portraying actual exertion during the fight sequences. Watch his face in his closeups during the fights; his fierce expression when hurling a punch and his alert reactions when his opponent aims a punch at him almost make the typically unreal Republic brawls seem realistic. Similarly, watch his expressions of alarm as he ducks thrown axes or spears, and his unassuming, friendly interchanges with the other good guys; although his reprisal of his Rex Bennett character in G-Men’s followup Secret Service in Darkest Africa would be somewhat underenergized, here Cameron delivers a performance that ranks him among Republic’s best leading men.
Constance Worth is very cool and effecient as heroine Vivian Marsh; though attractive, she’s decidedly sophisticated and mature for a serial heroine (she generally played shady adventuresses in feature films). While her coolness makes her a little aloof at times, it also makes her more believable as a genuine secret agent; it’d be hard to see some Republic’s ingenunes in the part. Roland Got (the only genuine Oriental in the cast) is low-key but likably cheerful as sidekick Chang, providing useful backup for Cameron and occasionally delivering Confuciusian-style maxims (“With the Japanese, always expect the unexpected,” or “The enemy is always the best guide to his own lair”) with an offhandness that keeps them from seeming pompous. I also like the genteel way in which Got always tells villains to drop their guns and put their hands up (“So sorry to interrupt, gentlemen”); he seems sincerely polite.
Italian-born Nino Pipitone is very good as the villainous Haruchi, although his makeup makes him look more like an evil circus clown than a Japanese. His thick, somewhat guttural accent, though decidedly un-Oriental in sound, gives his lines an appropriately sinister tone, while his forcefully confident manner helps to make him seem menacing despite his small size; he lacks the larger-than-life screen presence that someone like John Davidson or Frank Lackteen could have brought to the role, but he succeeds in coming off as a formidable heavy nonetheless.
Pipitone’s two lieutenants, Noel Cravat and George J. Lewis, are just as nasty as he is; while earlier Republic serials featured action heavies backed by a large pack of recurring henchmen throughout the cliffhanger, G-Men vs. the Black Dragon features an action heavy duo supported by disposable followers who are invariably killed at the end of a fight sequence, an arrangement that would be used in almost all later Republic chapterplays. This serial’s villainous duo is well up to the task of shouldering almost all active villainy; Cravat gives his character an aggressive and snarling manner, while Lewis brings an icy ferocity to his role. Together, they’re an intimidatingly harsh and cruel duo.
G-Men vs. the Black Dragon is one of the last Republic serials to utilize memorable character actors in bit roles, the way Republic’s 1930s outings did; most Republic cliffhangers from 1943 on would economize by putting moustaches or grey sideburns on stuntmen for incidental roles. G-Men’s cast of supporting players includes C. Montague Shaw as an upright professor, Hooper Atchley as a jumpy lawyer, George Lynn as a pilot/henchman, Donald Kirke as a slick Black Dragon agent, Edmund Cobb as a dam commissioner, John Hamilton as an engineer, William Forrest as a scientist, Crane Whitley as a villainous pianist, Forbes Murray as a diplomat, Maxine Doyle (wife of director William Witney) as the heroine’s maid, Bud Geary as a thug, and Stanley Price as a murderous mute henchman. Each and every one of these players is a welcome sight, even though none of them are on screen for that long of a time. Frequent B-western juvenile Tom Seidel appears throughout the serial as Cameron’s capable code-busting assistant.
Mort Glickman’s score (fierce action music with an Oriental tinge) for this serial is excellent, so good that it was reused in countless later Republic serials. William Witney does a stellar job directing the last serial he made before going into the Marines during World War Two. While producer William J. O’Sullivan is often credited with finishing the serial (Witney joined the Marines before shooting was completed), Jack Mathis in his book Valley of the Cliffhangers attributes the remaining directorial work to Witney’s old partner John English; if this is true, it’s highly appropriate, since G-Men vs. the Black Dragon represents a kind of conclusion to the years of Witney and English’s serial-making; while many of its elements would become key parts of the latter-day Republic formula, it still displays many of the greatest qualities of that Witney-English Golden Age.