Secret Service in Darkest Africa (misleadingly retitled Manhunt in the African Jungle in reissue) chronicles the further adventures of Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron), hero of G-Men vs. the Black Dragon. This time around, Bennett is in North Africa, battling Nazi agents who are trying to win the Arab tribesmen over to their side, committing sabotage, and otherwise trying to cripple the Allies’ military strength in the region. Rex is aided by American reporter Janet Blake (Joan Marsh) and Free French intelligence officer Pierre LaSalle (Duncan Renaldo), and opposed by the nasty Nazi spy Wolfe (Frederic Brunn) and his array of henchmen. However, Rex and his friends don’t realize that their supposedly friendly ally, Sultan Abou Ben Ali, is actually Nazi agent Baron Von Rommler, Wolfe’s boss; Rommler has kidnapped the Sultan and is posing as him in order to remain privy to Bennett’s plans. It takes fifteen chapters’ worth of non-stop fistfights, shootouts, and explosions for Rex to finally destroy the Baron’s evil schemes and expose his masquerade.
Among serial fans, there are two schools of thought regarding Secret Service in Darkest Africa. The first and far larger school regards the serial as an all-time classic, one of the most fast-paced and action-packed cliffhangers Republic ever turned out. The other school, smaller but vocal, regards the chapterplay as a headache-inducing serial overdose, too filled with fistfights and chases for its own good. Both schools have a lot of truth on their side. Secret Service in Darkest Africa does contain some of the most spectacular action sequences and explosive miniatures seen in any serial, but at the same time it can prove awfully wearing on the viewer unless taken in its original one-chapter-at-a-time form.
Even when watched in single-chapter doses, Secret Service suffers from a failing that would become a trademark of most later 1940s Republic serials: incessant repetition of several kinds. The serial is crammed to bursting with spectacular, acrobatic, furniture-busting fistfights, and each action scene is highly impressive on its own–but they tend to cancel each other out after a while, especially since they appear at a rate of two or three per chapter and rarely lead to any new plot development. Republic’s later and similarly action-packed Daredevils of the West somewhat remedied this repetition problem by setting its fights against the attempts to bring the heroine’s stage line in on time, but here, when one Nazi plot is thwarted in a burst of violence, the heroes merely move on to another unrelated scheme and dismantle it in identical fashion.
Mort Glickman’s loud, booming musical score, with the same cues repeatedly matched to the same sequences (particularly during the fights, the recurring scenes in the Nazi dungeon, and the establishing shot of the French Diplomatic Headquarters in every chapter) is also repetitive to a bothersome degree. The mechanical way in which the “disposable” henchmen are killed off by the good guys begins to have an almost comical effect after a while, as the heroes (and heroine) calmly gun down villain after villain (sometimes even shooting them in the back) without batting an eye.
Now we’ll examine the credit side of Secret Service’s ledger. The fight scenes, repetitive though they are, are excellently staged by director Spencer Bennet and expertly performed by his stunt team–Tom Steele (doubling Rod Cameron), Duke Green (doubling Frederic Brunn), and Ken Terrell (doubling Duncan Renaldo and playing innumerable disposable thugs into the bargain). All the fights are obviously crafted with great care by Bennet, and it’s hard to pick a standout among them–but there are a few that stick in the memory more than others. There’s the lengthy battle in the basement of the Oasis Cafe in Chapter Five, in which the stuntmen fight up, down, and around a long staircase and a balcony. Then there’s the slugfest in the clock-maker’s shop in Chapter Six, the fight on board the docked riverboat in Chapter Seven, and the climactic fistfight/sword fight in the final chapter. The contrasting fighting styles of the lanky, boxing-oriented Steele and the acrobatic and gymnastic Terrell and Green, make the fight sequences a nice blend of fisticuffs, wild leaps, and judo flips. Steele makes such a good physical double for Cameron that it’s impossible to tell when the stuntman takes over from the star; Cameron seems to be doing at least some of the fights himself, and delivers most convincing punches in the close-up shots.
The serial’s exotic location, though not put to as effective use as it could have been, is still a point in Secret Service’s favor, since it allows for several changes of locale and keeps the action from being confined to warehouses and dockyards, as in many stateside Republic serials. There are lots of open-air horseback chases and gunfights, and several memorable sequences set inside the “Republic cave.” Writers Jesse Duffy, Royal Cole, Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland come up with one spectacular cliffhanger ending after another, aided by the Lydeckers’ wonderful miniature work; the exploding riverboat at the end of Chapter One, the exploding beach cabin at the end of Chapter Eleven, and the incredible exploding graveyard sequence at the end of Chapter Six are just three examples of the brothers’ genius. There are also some great non-explosive cliffhangers, such as the Chapter Twelve ending, in which Rod Cameron is sentenced to die on an revolving execution wheel, and the Chapter Seven ending, in which heroine Joan Marsh is apparently squashed by a giant stone slab.
The acting in the serial is more low-key and uneven than in most previous Republic serials, which seems to indicate that director Bennet was more concerned with orchestrating the action scenes than in working with his actors. Most of the principals, however, fill their roles in competent if uninspired fashion. Rod Cameron here displays little of the animation he showed in G-Men vs. the Black Dragon, remaining stone-faced throughout. However, his deep voice and determined, square-jawed face still lend conviction to his lines, and his athleticism also helps him to carry his part off capably enough.
Leading lady Joan Marsh, a former Paramount starlet, rather mars her performance with the angry smirk she sports in far too many scenes–perhaps due to irritation at having to do a serial, or because of displeasure at her unflattering costume: although she’s very attractive, her ridiculous turban-like hat and oversized trenchcoat don’t show her off to very good advantage. Duncan Renaldo is pleasant, genial, and charismatic in his sidekick role, though decidedly less energetic than in King of the Texas Rangers and other earlier Republic serials.
Lionel Royce is wonderful as Sultan Abou Ben Ali and Baron Von Rommler, delivering what is easily the serial’s standout performance. As the captive Sultan, he conveys a regally proud spirit in the face of continued maltreatment, and as the conniving Baron, he handles suavely cultured villainy and dignified hypocrisy with equal skill. The stage-trained Royce is able to sound dramatic and interesting even when describing MacGuffins such as the “Munitions Disintegrator,” and his deep laugh, heard whenever Rommler has pulled off a particularly pleasing piece of chicanery, is ideally sinister without being hammy.
Frederic Brunn’s performance as Wolfe is pretty lifeless, particularly in comparison to Royce’s. While possessing a suitably unpleasant face and a snarling voice, Brunn lacks any of the personality of action heavies like George J. Lewis, Kenne Duncan, or Bud Geary, who all gave some individuality to their henchmen characters. Brunn maintains the same arrogant smile and the same scornfully snarling voice no matter what lines he’s delivering, never altering or varying his voice or expression in the slightest. Sometimes it seems as if he’s delivering his lines phonetically–which, given his Austrian origins, is quite possible. The personable Kurt Kreuger, who plays Royce’s “office henchman,” would have been a much better choice for Brunn’s role, although, as a more prestigious actor, Kreuger would probably have been too expensive for Republic to use in such a large part. Kreuger has little to do here (his scenes were obviously all filmed at the same time)–but does it well, beginning the serial as a slick and confident heavy but becoming more nervous and apprehensive as the cliffhanger progresses.
Stuntmen (principally Ken Terrell, Duke Green, and Joe Yrigoyen) fill most of the background roles in Secret Service, but some established character actors make brief appearances as well. Kurt Katch plays a Nazi officer in the first chapter, and William Vaughn delivers an excellent performance as a Gestapo agent who unfortunately gets killed off rather quickly. Frederic Worlock, a frequent character player in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films, appears in the final chapter as diplomat Sir James Langley, while one-time 1930s star Jack LaRue plays an inventive but villainous “clockmaker” who specializes in explosives. Deep-voiced John Davidson pops up as a sheik, and Paul Marion plays the son of a desert chieftain, with Anthony Warde as his treacherous servant. Bud Geary is a crooked blacksmith, George J. Lewis an Arab henchman, Georges Renavent a sneaky hotel manager, and Ralf Harolde an arms-smuggling riverboat captain. Swedish actor Sigurd Tor is given star billing along with Cameron, Renaldo, Marsh, Kreuger, Royce, and Brunn, but has virtually no dialogue; his only function is to operate the radio in the villains’ headquarters.
Secret Service in Darkest Africa is highly recommended for serial fans who feel that non-stop action sequences should be the raison d’être of any serial. Those who like a little more plot, atmosphere, and characterization in their chapterplays will not enjoy it as much, but should still find plenty to admire in its brilliant stuntwork and its explosive miniatures. Exhilarating though it is, it also suffers from overkill; had even one-fourth of its fistfights been pruned out, it’d rank close to the Witney-and-English-directed serials that preceded it. As it stands, it’s a notch below those Golden Age chapterplays, in spite of its position as perhaps the most action-crammed serial ever made.