Daredevils of the Red Circle

Daredevils of the Red Circle--titles
Republic, 12 Chapters, 1939. Starring Charles Quigley, Herman Brix, David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, Charles Middleton, C. Montague Shaw, and Tuffy.

The Daredevils of the Red Circle are a trio of athletic young carnival performers, consisting of high diver Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), strong man Tiny Dawson (Herman Brix), and escape artist Burt Knowles (Dave Sharpe). The Daredevils are currently performing at the Granville Amusement Pier, little knowing that the Pier is one of the targets selected for destruction by convicted embezzler and prison escapee Harry Crowel (Charles Middleton), who uses his prisoner number (39-0-13) as a nom de crime. Crowel, the former partner of tycoon Horace Granville (Miles Mander), is out to destroy each of Granville’s business enterprises, to pay Granville back for sending him to jail. “39-0-13” successfully destroys Granville’s amusement pier with fire, but the villain makes three new enemies in the process when Gene Townley’s kid brother Sammy (Robert Winkler) is killed in the conflagration. The three Daredevils vow to track down the man responsible for Sammy’s death, and join the ranks of the private detectives engaged in hunting 39-0-13. With the help of their peculiar talents, their courage and resource, and the timely notes sent by a mysterious benefactor who signs himself “The Red Circle,” the Daredevils begin to thwart 39-0-13’s plans–despite the fact that they’re making their reports to a man they believe to be Granville, but is actually 39-0-13 himself; Crowel has imprisoned his enemy in a secret cell in Granville’s own mansion, and, disguised as him, is trying to misdirect the investigators’ campaign. The Daredevils must not only block Crowel’s sabotage attempts, but also penetrate this double masquerade.

Daredevils of the Red Circle almost invariably ranks in the first, second, or third spot on buffs’ lists of the greatest Republic serials, and it’s entirely deserving of its high reputation. It features an involving script, one of the all-round strongest casts of any Republic chapterplay, and outstanding stuntwork that is staged against an extensive array of interesting outdoor locations.

Barry Shipman, Franklin Adreon, Ronald Davidson, Rex Taylor, and Sol Shor–Daredevils’ writers–give above-average interest to their scenario by their use of a team of “civilian” heroes, instead of G-men or other professional detectives. It’s always enjoyable to watch Dick Tracy and his ilk fight crime with super-scientific detection techniques, but it’s even more entertaining to watch three daring amateurs battle villains with the aid of nothing more than wits, fists, some unusual skills derived from their true profession, and a strong personal motivation for bringing down the villain. In this aspect, the serial harks back to Mascot chapterplays like The Hurricane Express or Burn ’em up Barnes, with their pilot or race-driver heroes compelled by circumstances to become crime-fighters.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--amusement pier
Above: A crowd watches the Daredevils perform in Chapter One. Below: Dave Sharpe (far left), Herman Brix, and Tuffy the dog watch as Charles Quigley helps Robert Winkler learn to wash behind his ears.
Daredevils of the Red Circle--family group

There are other echoes of Mascot’s serials in Daredevils, particularly in Crowel’s use of a lifelike mask to impersonate 39-0-13–but Shipman and the other writers make this notion much more plausible than similar gimmicks in Hurricane Express and Mystery Mountain. The imposture is shown to be easily detectable by other characters at close range, and the phony Granville takes care to interview the heroes at a distance; he stays behind a glass screen in a section of the house ostensibly quarantined for the sake of “Granville’s” frail health. The writers also provide a completely plausible explanation for the existence of the “Red Circle,” although the revelation of the character’s true identity does leave some minor loose ends.

Shipman and company carefully avoid making the action too repetitious; the various battles at Granville’s plants are balanced by intrigue at the visually interesting Granville mansion (represented by the George Lewis mansion, also seen in Manhunt of Mystery Island) and by sequences like the Daredevils’ suspenseful attempt to escape from a locked vault to prevent the District Attorney’s murder. They also bring some excellent suspense and drama to the serial’s concluding action; the unexpected unmasking of 39-0-13 in Chapter Ten, just as the villain seems to have triumphed, is a wonderful moment, as is the subsequent rescue of Granville in the same chapter–during which the release of 39-0-13’s gas capsules, ominously foreshadowed throughout the serial, finally occurs and nearly destroys all the protagonists. The narrative briefly slows down in Chapter Eleven for some flashbacks (one of them quite necessary, however), but the final chapter–which begins with a tense hostage situation, includes a great scene in which Herman Brix’s character bursts into 39-0-13’s secret hideout, and ends with a car chase haunted by the threat of a booby-trapped car–constitutes one of the best payoffs to any serial.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--audience room fight
Above: The fight in the audience chamber just before the unmasking of the phony Granville. Below: The rescue of the real Granville; left to right are Charles Quigley, Miles Mander, Carole Landis, Herman Brix, and David Sharpe.
Daredevils of the Red Circle--gas chamber escape

The serial’s action scenes are unfailingly well-staged by directors William Witney and John English, with George DeNormand, Ted Mapes, and Jimmy Fawcett doubling (respectively) for Charles Quigley, Herman Brix, and Dave Sharpe; Loren Reibe, Duke Taylor, Yakima Canutt, Bud Wolfe, Joe Yrigoyen, and Ken Terrell also contribute. These action sequences aren’t the room-wrecking brawls of later Republic serials; while there’s plenty of fisticuffs on hand, the heroes and villains rarely fight in the same location for more than a few minutes at a time. Instead, the characters spend their time fighting in and chasing each other through a succession of actual chemical companies, gas plants, and power-houses. The fight on the floating oil well in Chapter Two, and the subsequent motorboat chase back to the dock, is particularly good, as is the lengthy chase and fight in the chemical company later in the same chapter.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--Chemical factory chase 1 Daredevils of the Red Circle--Chemical factory chase 2 Daredevils of the Red Circle--Chemical factory chase 3 Daredevils of the Red Circle--Chemical factory chase 4
Above: A botched murder attempt on the Daredevils (top left) sends Brix (top right), Sharpe (bottom left, vaulting the rail) and Quigley (bottom right) chasing the culprits through the “Granville Chemical Company.”

Other highlights include the gas plant sequence in Chapter Four, with a fistfight between the Daredevils and a band of saboteurs and a chase through the plant’s catwalks, and the Chapter Nine chase at a different plant, with Quigley pursuing a villain via ladder to the top of a gigantic oil tank. Quigley’s cross-country race in a station wagon to save a flooded mine is also memorable, as is the oil-field fight sequence, the subsequent fire, and Brix and Sharpe’s battle to stop the villains from sabotaging a bridge that Quigley is about to cross in a heavy oil truck.

The best of all the action scenes, however, is the justly famous sequence leading up to the Chapter One cliffhanger, which has Quigley on a motorcycle trying to out-race floodwater in an undersea tunnel, in hopes of saving an oncoming motorcade. The Chapter Two cliffhanger, with Quigley being knocked into a pool of blazing oil, is almost as good, and is followed by an excellent resolution. Quigley’s apparent electrocution and fall from a pylon tower at the end of Chapter Seven and the oil-tower collapse that seems to doom the Daredevils at the end of Chapter Eight are also among the serial’s standout chapter endings.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--tunnel 1 Daredevils of the Red Circle--tunnel 2
Above: Shots from the famous Chapter One cliffhanger.

The tunnel sequence, the spectacular first-chapter amusement park fire, and other scenes of large-scale destruction are aided greatly by the Lydecker Brothers’ miniatures, while the action in general is further enhanced by William Lava’s music score–pieces of which would pop up in many later and lesser serials right up to the end of Republic’s chapterplay-producing years.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--amusement pier fire
Above: Carole Landis and Robert Winkler trapped in the amusement-pier fire.

To return to Daredevils’ cast (which I think I mentioned above, before launching into the preceding paragraphs of praise); it’s strong all the way down the line. The three leads are very energetic in the action scenes and very likable in the dialogue ones; Quigley’s blend of earnest eagerness and shrewdness, Brix’s laconically casual manner, Sharpe’s chipper energy, and the breezy interactions between the three of them are all tremendously appealing.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--the Daredevils
Above, from left to right: Brix, Sharpe, and Quigley.

Charles Middleton is memorably frightening as 39-0-13, whether he’s smilingly tormenting Granville with news of his depredations or grimly ordering the destruction of another of his victim’s businesses. Middleton’s unmatched skill for depicting vindictiveness, cold anger, and megalomania also makes the character’s over-elaborate vengeance scheme seem quite psychologically credible.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--Charles Middleton
Above: A publicity portrait of Charles Middleton as 39-0-13.

Veteran character actor Miles Mander delivers an excellent performance that is too often overlooked in reviews of the serial. As the disguised Crowel, he almost halves the serial’s villainy with Middleton, sneering out sarcastic lines with great aplomb. He’s equally good as Granville, conveying frustrated concern, weariness, and a dogged determination to outwit his captor. The lovely Carole Landis, who went on to become a star at Twentieth-Century Fox in the 1940s, is very winning as Granville’s granddaughter Blanche; she remains a pleasant background presence for much of the chapterplay, but becomes a pivotal character in the concluding chapters.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--Mander and Mander Daredevils of the Red Circle--Carole Landis
Above left: Good Miles Mander (left) confronts bad Miles Mander in a split-screen shot. Above right: Carole Landis with Ben Taggart (left) and William Pagan.

One of Daredevils’ few lacks is in the henchman department, although this is a flaw in the script and not in the acting. There is no real action heavy or regular henchman pack here; virtually all of the active villainy is handled by a different gang of thugs in each chapter. A recurring lead henchman would have been a welcome touch, but the many one-shot villains are played by some solid heavy actors–among them John Merton, George Chesebro, Curley Dresden, Bud Geary, George Turner, Earl Askam, and Stanley Price (who has a vivid bit as a mad scientist).

Aside from the grim-faced, mustachioed Jerry Jerome, who supervises the first-chapter carnival sabotage and pops up occasionally thereafter to receive and relay telephonic orders from 39-0-13, the only supporting villains that persist from chapter to chapter are C. Montague Shaw and Ray Miller, as the venal doctor and male nurse attending on the phony doctor. Shaw makes a good foil for Middleton, his unctuous caution contrasting with his leader’s maniacal ruthlessness; Miller does little but stand around and look tough. Raymond Bailey figures in the first three chapters as Granville’s crooked secretary; it took me several viewings to realize that this Bailey was the same man who co-starred as Milburn Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies; his shifty but subdued performance shows no trace of the wild hamminess he displayed on that show.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--39-0-13's followers
Above: The seated Miles Mander is flanked by (left to right) C. Montague Shaw, Ray Miller, and Raymond Bailey.

Ben Taggart is good as the dignified but pompous and decidedly oblivious Dixon, head of the detective agency protecting Granville and his enterprises. William Pagan is the rather sententious police chief and Corbet Morris a sneaky but self-important ally of 39-0-13’s, while Harry Strang, Edmund Cobb, and Roy Barcroft (not a villain for once) all appear as foremen at various threatened Granville properties, and Monte Montague and Joe McGuinn may be seen as two power-plant workmen. Earle Hodgins is in his element as the vociferous carnival barker in the first chapter. Fred “Snowflake” Toones, as Granville’s befuddled butler, adds some mild comedy to the serial but doesn’t slow the action down. Robert Winkler is fine as Quigley’s little brother in the first chapter, and his death scene is quite moving (although more because of Quigley’s excellent acting than any especial talent on the youngster’s part). Last but not least, border collie Tuffy, as the Daredevils’ faithful dog, adds a nice touch to the proceedings and figures prominently in some key sequences.

Daredevils of the Red Circle, like Spy Smasher, King of the Texas Rangers, and several other top-rank Republic serials, is so strong in all departments–writing, acting, pacing, locations, and action–that it doesn’t give a critic much to do besides enumerating its virtues. However, while the serial causes me problems as a reviewer, it utterly delights me as a viewer–and has done the same for almost every other cliffhanger fan, ever since its original release.

Daredevils of the Red Circle--last
Above: A carnival-themed chapter card for Daredevils of the Red Circle, with Earle Hodgins in front of an advertising marquee that sums up the serial nicely.

5 thoughts on “Daredevils of the Red Circle

  1. I am in the process of re-watching this one and I agree with the consensus opinion–it’s one of the very best and most entertaining serials ever.

  2. April 25th, just received my Blu ray copy from Kino. The picture and sound match the quality of the chapter play!! Will most likely watch at least twice this week!!

  3. First rate in all departments, with a strong cast, inventive plot line and the really interesting and well-done location work. The ending is one of the best of any serial and a totally fitting way for the villain to exit. A very enjoyable film from start to finish, marred only by the inclusion of the demeaning “Snowflake” character. Why the studios and the audiences found these sorts of portrayals to be amusing or even necessary is totally beyond me.

    One other note – 39013’s name is stated several times to be Harry Crowell, yet when the Chief of Police is reading Crowell’s prison information sheet, his name is clearly written as “James” Crowell. I guess the writers must have thought “Harry” sounded more nefarious!

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