Professor William Forrest (Forrest Taylor), the developer of a “radio-atomic power transmitter” that can power and operate mechanical devices over long distances, has disappeared on an expedition to the Pacific Islands in search of materials needed to operate his device. His daughter Claire (Linda Stirling) enlists the help of famed criminologist Lance Reardon (Richard Bailey) to find her father, and the two soon pick up his trail on Mystery Island, a small isle owned and governed by four descendants of its one-time pirate ruler Captain Mephisto. These offshoots of the old buccaneer pledge their aid to Lance and Claire, but one of the quartet is secretly a master criminal who has kidnapped Forrest and is forcing him to complete his power transmitter as part of a plan for seizing control of world industry. This mystery villain conducts his activities in the living form of his ancestor Captain Mephisto (Roy Barcroft), having invented a “transformation chair” that turns him into a molecular duplicate of the old pirate. The “reincarnated” Mephisto repeatedly tries to kill the intrusive Reardon in order to protect his schemes, while trying to capture Claire as a means of coercing her unhelpful father. Our hero and heroine must dodge Mephisto’s murderous attacks and kidnapping attempts in order to bring the Manhunt of Mystery Island to a successful conclusion.
Manhunt of Mystery Island comes close to being Republic’s greatest post-1943 serial; it features excellent action scenes, a good script, some terrific location work, and one of the best and most colorful villains in any chapterplay. However, the serial has one major flaw in its ointment, which keeps it from ranking alongside earlier classics like Perils of Nyoka or G-Men vs. the Black Dragon: Richard Bailey’s off-putting and uncharismatic performance as hero Lance Reardon (more on that later on).
Mystery Island’s script, because of its large cast of suspicious characters, its variety of locales, and the direction given to the plot by the search for Forrest, manages to avoid the repetitious flavor of many 1940s Republic serials; whenever the audience feels in danger of bogging down in an endless cycle of fistfights, there’s an outbreak of suspicious behavior by one of the island’s owners to be investigated, a new cave or tunnel to be explored, or a dangerous trip to the mainland to be made. Like other Republic serials from this period, Mystery Island actually seems to benefit from the presence of multiple writers (Albert DeMond, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Alan James, Grant Nelson, and Joseph Poland); the confluence of multiple imaginations works against staleness in the scripting. The final chapter, however, is a bit of a letdown; the death and unmasking of Mephisto is handled in a most undramatic manner, for the sake of an attempt to fool the audience that does not succeed. The writers are less at fault, though, for the repeated scenes of the mysterious culprit’s transformations into Mephisto (and vice versa). These often-criticized sequences may seem tedious–but would have been much less so in the serial’s original chapter-a-week format. They serve to remind the weekly audience of Mephisto’s strange device in a more visually impressive fashion than mere dialogue would have.
Speaking of dialogue, Manhunt of Mystery Island has more witty lines than many other mid-forties Republic serials–particularly in Mephisto’s many haughtily sarcastic interchanges with his henchman Brand; in one oft-quoted (by serial buffs) interchange, Brand claims to understand Mephisto’s explanation of the transformation process, to which the master villain smugly responds, “if I thought you really did, I’d kill you.” The reaction of one of the suspects to the idea of Mephisto’s dual identity is also amusing: “A modern-day Jekyll and Hyde with the habits of a werewolf? That’s so absurd it’s funny.”
Mystery Island features its share of furniture-smashing fight sequences in laboratories or warehouses, typical of other Republic outings of the period, but also manages to get outdoors more than many of its contemporaries, complementing the indoor brawls with such scenes as an excellent fight at a boat dock in Chapter Nine, two memorable motorboat chases (in Chapters Three and Six), and a great sequence at the end of Chapter Eleven that has Lance Reardon chasing Mephisto up a series of paths and boardwalks to the top of a bluff overlooking the bay, with the two enemies trading punches at every turn of the trail along the way. This chase offers a panoramic view of the impressive coastal locations (Laguna Beach) utilized at other points in the serial; these glimpses of the ocean shore give Mystery Island more actual atmosphere than many serial locales. The spacious manor house of Mystery Island’s owners (actually the Lewis Mansion in Beverly Hills), with its long hedged-in pathway leading down to the roadway, helps further in making the island feel like a real place.
The aforementioned Chapter Eleven chase scene comes on the heels of a very impressive fistfight in a fisherman’s shack, which ranks as one of the best of the set-destroying fights so favored by Spencer Bennet, Mystery Island’s co-director. It’s only one of many such highlights throughout the serial; others include the fight in Lance Reardon’s lab in Chapter One, a lengthy fight between Reardon and a thug (Fred Graham) at an old winery in Chapter Four, Reardon’s fight with Mephisto and two of his men in a volcanic cavern in Chapter Twelve, and a battle between Reardon and Mephisto at a mountain cabin in Chapter Thirteen.
The stuntwork is largely handled by Tom Steele (doubling Richard Bailey), Dale Van Sickel (doubling Roy Barcroft), and Duke Green (doubling Kenne Duncan), with assists from Fred Graham, Duke Taylor, Eddie Parker, and others. The continual presence of the acrobatic Green–who specializes here and elsewhere in leaping onto his adversaries’ heads from desks or tables–helps to give additional zip to the standard Steele-Van Sickel slugfests. Co-directors Yakima Canutt and Wallace Grissell should share equal credit for the good staging of the fight scenes; in fact, one wonders if their presence helped curtail Bennet’s occasional weakness for overdoing the scale and number of his fight scenes, since Manhunt of Mystery Island never steps into the action-overload territory that Secret Service in Darkest Africa (directed solely by Bennet) sometimes did.
The serial’s chapter endings make less use of the Lydecker Brothers’ explosive miniatures than most of the 1940s Republic serials that preceded it, but these sequences manage to be very memorable notwithstanding. Among the standouts are Linda Stirling’s near-drowning while trapped in a fish net, Kenne Duncan’s attempt to incinerate Richard Bailey with a heat ray, Bailey’s plummet from the bluff at the end of the Chapter Eleven chase sequence, the villains’ apparent squashing of Bailey with a winepress, Stirling and Bailey’s desperate race to escape flood waters in a mountainside tunnel, and their later fall from a severed suspension bridge. As for the Lydeckers, although they’re underrepresented, they’re still on hand for a few cliffhangers–including a particularly memorable one involving an exploding motorboat.
Now, we come to this serial’s cast–which brings us back to the flaw in the ointment mentioned earlier. Richard Bailey, obviously hired for his resemblance to Tom Steele, is otherwise woefully unqualified to play a serial hero. His weak, oddly-accented voice becomes irritating to listen to after a while, while his homely face and garish sports jacket make him equally as jarring to the eye (granted, the jacket is the costuming department’s fault, not his). He manages to deliver his lines smoothly and professionally enough, but brings very little energy to them; not for one minute do we believe that this listless, mild-mannered fellow can really punch out hard-bitten thugs or make brilliant, Sherlock Holmes-like deductions. Had Reardon been played by a charismatic performer like Ralph Byrd or Kane Richmond–or even a pedestrian but authoritative actor like Dennis Moore or Robert Kent–the serial would have benefited enormously. As it is, while Bailey doesn’t destroy the chapterplay, he undeniably takes it down several notches.
Gorgeous leading lady Linda Stirling delivers her lines with all the energy that Bailey lacks, making her character’s concern for her father and loathing for Mephisto seem absolutely heartfelt. She’s determinedly courageous but gracefully feminine throughout, and it’s her acting that carries the many scenes in which she and Bailey plan their strategies and helps give a much-needed sense of urgency to the protagonists’ quest.
However, it’s Roy Barcroft who take top acting honors here, going beyond his typical crafty tough-guy characterization to give Captain Mephisto a scornful, arrogant, and gleefully evil manner that’s decidedly diabolical in its overall flavor. The Captain’s mocking interchanges with his enemies, his sarcastic sneers at the expense of his henchman, his exultant boasting about controlling world industry, and his occasional bursts of rage are all handled by Barcroft in such a vividly larger-than-life (but never hammy) fashion that his character completely dominates the serial.
Kenne Duncan makes a perfect henchman for Barcroft–nervous and shifty where his boss is confident and swaggering, but still persistent and mean enough to pose a real threat to the heroes: his nervously deferential attitude towards Mephisto is balanced by the harsh and sneering way in which he repeatedly confronts the hero and heroine. Old trouper Forrest Taylor is excellent as the captive Professor, meeting Barcroft’s repeated threats with dignity and calm and shrewdly plotting various escape attempts.
The suspect pool for Captain Mephisto consists of Forbes Murray, Harry Strang, Edward Cassidy, and–unexpectedly–usual henchman Jack Ingram. Murray’s brisk joviality is so convincing that it’s hard to imagine him as a heavy, but the other three players manage to be simultaneously likable enough and sinister enough to be convincing as both apparent good guys and potential villains. Frank Alten has a somewhat thankless role as Forrest Taylor’s assistant and fellow-captive, serving mainly as a sounding-board for the Professor’s dialogue and getting almost casually bumped off towards the end.
The serial’s stuntmen–Steele, Van Sickel, Green, and company–handle almost all the serial’s incidental character roles, although the toothless and colorful Si Jenks has a good bit as a crusty old salt, while Lane Chandler has a small role as a police inspector. Dignified stage actor Frederick Howard pops up as an antique dealer, and Russ Vincent plays the suspects’ Polynesian butler.
Mystery Island’s music score, directed by Richard Cherwin, makes good use of earlier Republic pieces, while adding a few flourishes of its own–most notably the cue I like to call the Mephisto Enters theme, which works well to underscore appearances by Barcroft’s character.
Crimped by post-war budgets, few of the Republic serials that followed Manhunt of Mystery Island would feature as colorful an assortment of locations or as fantastic a storyline. The chapterplay was one of the last echoes of the far-flung and richly imaginative Republic outings from the late 1930s and early 1940s, and would rank alongside many of them were it not for the spectacular miscasting of its leading man. However, despite Bailey and his plaid jacket, Mystery Island remains one of Republic’s most enjoyable 1940s serials; its locale, stuntwork, and cliffhangers, along with its lovely heroine and memorable heavy, have won it many a visit and revisit from serial buffs (the author included).