A strange meteor streaks through the night sky towards Earth, to the great excitement of famed scientist Dr. Cyrus Layton (James Craven), who calculates its probable landing place and rushes to witness its arrival on Earth. The “meteor” proves to be a spaceship, which explodes after safely ejecting its occupant, a Martian scientist (Roy Barcroft). Layton delightedly escorts the extraterrestrial visitor back to his office, but is astonished when he learns that the Martian has arrived on Earth as the one-man vanguard of a planned invasion; his goal is to steal the plans of Layton’s sophisticated interplanetary “jet plane”–far superior to Martian spaceships–and use it as the prototype for a Martian invasion armada. To further his schemes, the Martian–who calls himself the “Purple Monster”–kills Layton with Martian gas, steals the plans, and assumes the dead scientist’s body with the help of another gas. Before doing so, however, he has a brief encounter with Layton’s niece Sheila (Linda Stirling) and Layton’s attorney, ex-Secret Service officer Craig Foster (Dennis Moore)–thus alerting them to the Purple Monster’s existence and the disappearance of the jet-plane plans. Undaunted, the Martian agent recruits Earthling hoodlum Hodge Garrett (Bud Geary) to aid his schemes, and sets out to steal all the materials necessary for constructing a jet plane* that he can fly back to Mars. Foster and Sheila do their best to thwart his various acts of scientific plundering–most of them aimed at Layton’s colleagues at the Scientific Research Foundation–but are hampered by the Monster’s pose as Layton himself, which gives the alien access to all their plans
The Purple Monster Strikes, like Republic’s Haunted Harbor the year before, opens very strongly and unusually, only to quickly fall into Republic’s familiar 1940s patterns. The nocturnal arrival of the title villain, his cold-blooded murder of Dr. Layton, and his creepy takeover of the scientist’s dead body constitute one of the eeriest and most memorable beginnings in any Republic serial–and also foreshadows any number of 1950s sci-fi features. Spooky atmospherics are soon abandoned, however, in favor of an entertaining but highly repetitive series of duels between the Purple Monster and Craig Foster over various scientific creations (launching rockets, rocket fuel, a meteor-annihilator, an “atmospheric stabilizer”) needed for the completion and equipment of the jet plane. The formula is occasionally varied by the villains’ attempts to kill the hero and heroine; the final four chapters also break from the mold, with the protagonists discovering the Martian shape-shifting trick and beginning an investigation that leads them directly to “Dr. Layton.” However, the bulk of the serial follows a firm pattern of “introduce gadget–fight over gadget–get into cliffhanger–escape cliffhanger–repeat cycle.”
The writers (Royal Cole, Barney Sarecky, Joseph Poland, Lynn Perkins, Albert DeMond, and Basil Dickey) do manage to make these formulaic encounters seem more urgent than the similar duels in many other Republics by actually allowing the Purple Monster to slowly progress towards his goal, instead of being checkmated in every encounter. They also allow the Monster to kill off a high percentage of supporting characters, thus preserving at least some of the sense of menace established in the opening episode; the villain’s poisoning of Professor Crandall (Frederick Howard) in Chapter Six–which first turns the scientist into a murderous madman and then kills him with its after-effects–is particularly scary, effectively venturing back into the first chapter’s horror-movie territory.
The serial features some built-in improbabilities in its plot–particularly the notion that Martians, though they have mastered the arts of interplanetary communication and shape-shifting, cannot figure out how to construct a spaceship capable of making a Mars-Earth-Mars round trip. This aspect of the story, along with the idea of a Martian hiring a gang of Earthling henchmen, requires a stronger-than-usual suspension of disbelief, but most seasoned serial fans should find it easy to swallow both premises. The whole Martian angle, despite its oddities, serves to embellish what would otherwise be a simple cops-and-robbers scenario with plenty of memorable sci-fi touches–among them the insanity-inducing poison, and the impressive “annihilator” ray machine. The shape-shifting gas is also an interesting gimmick, but is worn out through excessive reuse; to keep us reminded of the villain’s dual identity (and to use up screen time), we’re treated to a reprise of the Monster-into-Layton transformation (or a Layton-into-Monster change managed by a simple film reversal) in almost every chapter; these bits, though fortunately brief, can be trying to the patience at times.
Purple Monster is notable for its memorable collection of cliffhangers–many of which are distinguished by excellent Lydecker Brothers miniatures (Purple Monster was one of the last Republic outings to rely largely on brand-new Lydecker work rather than stock shots of the brothers’ earlier miniatures). The collision of the flaming fuel truck with the hero’s car at the end of Chapter Three is very memorable, albeit slightly mistimed (the vehicles explode a second before colliding). This scene, and the car-ambulance collision at the end of Chapter Nine, would pop up in multiple later Republics; oddly, the equally effective miniature-work endings of Chapter One (a rocket engine containing the heroine blasting through the roof of an airdrome), Chapter Seven (the explosion of a suburban house), and Chapter Fourteen (a warehouse explosion) were not reused in subsequent serials–even though they’re definitely on a par with other, more familiar Lydecker setpieces seen in other Republics.
The non-explosive cliffhangers are memorable as well, particularly the cleverly-resolved Chapter Two ladder fall, the Chapter Ten ending that has the hero being forced against a row of spikes by a moving wall, and the Chapter Six ending with the heroine trapped in a cell filling with water. This latter sequence–well-intercut with the hero’s fight to shut the water off and filmed at striking camera angles that accentuate the terror of the situation–just might rank as the best version of the oft-used “drowning room” cliffhanger in any serial (its only competition would be the similar scene in Terry and the Pirates).
The serial’s fight scenes are expertly staged by directors Spencer Bennet and Fred Brannon, but like all brawls from this period of Republic serial production, they tend towards an almost mechanized sameness, invariably featuring the stuntmen slugging each other around interior sets while demolishing each of the set’s props in the process. Dale Van Sickel doubles hero Dennis Moore, Tom Steele stands in for action heavy Bud Geary, and Fred Graham doubles Roy Barcroft. Though it’s hard to pick a standout among the uniformly good but decidedly similar fight scenes, some highlights include the Chapter One fight in the rocket-testing airdrome (with a neat rope-swing by Van Sickel), the big fuel-plant fight in Chapter Four, the fight in Chapter Six centered around the water-cell cliffhanger, the excellent garage fight in Chapter Eight, and the fight in the mineral lab in Chapter Thirteen.
Above: Dale Van Sickel uses Ken Terrell to knock over some stacked oil drums while Tom Steele picks himself up off the floor (left); Van Sickel and Steele topple a filing cabinet during the same sequence (right). Both shots are from the Chapter Eight garage fight.
The gunfight in the rocky hills of Iverson’s ranch in Chapter Fourteen, the fistfight by the annihilator truck in Chapter Five, and the Chapter Twelve cliff-top tussle between Linda Stirling and villainous female Martian Mary Moore (doubled by stuntwomen Babe DeFreest and Polly Burson, respectively) are also good–and give the serial some nice outdoor visuals that serve as a relief from the labs, garages, and apartments that form the backdrop for the bulk of the action. Several car chases along various winding highways provide additional scenic variety. The imposing exterior of Griffith Park Observatory is used for establishing shots of Layton’s Foundation, but the Park’s interesting surrounding terrain–particularly the Observatory stairs–is not utilized, even though Republic had made good use of it in the earlier Dick Tracy Returns.
Purple Monster’s leading players range from competent to excellent, with star Dennis Moore placing on the “competent” end of the spectrum. As usual, the deep-voiced and authoritative Moore snaps out his lines with assurance and handles the detective/action-hero aspects of his role with ease, but is unable to balance his extreme seriousness with much warmth or charisma. Fortunately, the lovely and graceful Linda Stirling helps to balance out Moore’s stone-faced grimness, reacting to the serial’s bizarre events with a sort of controlled breathlessness and delivering her dialogue in much more energetic and expressive fashion than her stoic co-star does.
Roy Barcroft is excellent as the Purple Monster, assuming a calmly cold-blooded manner quite different from the gloating demeanor of most of his screen heavies; his arrogant but icy bearing and his clipped, precise, and oddly-inflected dialogue delivery help immeasurably to give the character a convincingly alien aspect. James Craven, who practically halves villainous duties with Barcroft, also does an excellent job, playing the disguised Monster with a cool, cruel, and crafty self-confidence that matches well with Barcroft’s characterization. Craven is also very good in his brief turn as the doomed Layton, conveying scientific enthusiasm and an endearing but fatal naivety.
Despite the strong performances of Barcroft and Craven, Bud Geary manages to steal several scenes from both of them as the threatening but amusing thug Hodge Garrett. His first encounter with Layton/the Purple Monster, in which he goes from hard-boiled menace to comical impatience to open-mouthed horror, is a case in point; he’s equally memorable in other scenes, whether swaggeringly confronting the hero, skeptically questioning the bizarre scientific schemes of his boss, or tossing off deadpan wisecracks (“I may be a crook, but I’m no fool”).
The supporting cast includes some excellent character players. John Davidson makes several brief but welcome appearances as the entertainingly grandiose Emperor of Mars, while Emmet Vogan is his usual briskly important self as a fuel supplier, and Kenne Duncan gets to play a sympathetic scientist instead of one of his typical henchmen. Wheaton Chambers, George Carleton, and Frederick Howard play other scientists, with Howard getting the biggest spotlight in his aforementioned “mad scene.” Mary Moore is sinister in her brief turn as the Monster’s assistant Marcia, while Rosemonde James, as the secretary whose body is taken over by the female Martian, does a good job of acting first frightened, then duplicitous.
Future Republic B-western star Monte Hale plays a mineralogist and gets to take part in a fight scene, George Chesebro plays an unexpectedly heroic fuel-plant worker, and mild-mannered Joe Whitehead is the treasurer of the Scientific Foundation. Stuntmen Fred Graham, Ken Terrell, Henry Wills, Tom Steele, Cliff Lyons, Carey Loftin, and Johnny Daheim pop up as various heavies in addition to their stunting duties, while their fellow-stuntman Dale Van Sickel appears on the right side of the law, in bits as a cop and an ambulance driver. Anthony Warde has a small but colorful role as a “blind” beggar who acts as a Purple Monster agent.
The Purple Monster Strikes falls squarely into the category occupied by other wartime Republic outings like The Tiger Woman and Haunted Harbor. As in those two serials, the writers and directors submerge a promisingly offbeat premise beneath standardized Republic plotting, but deliver more than enough solid action and inventive cliffhangers to make up for the serial’s formulaic aspects–with an assist from an eminently reliable cast.
*Republic’s writers decided to substitute the rather odd-sounding “jet plane” designation for the more appropriate “rocket ship” during production of Purple Monster. It seems Republic’s lawyers feared the use of “rocket ship” might result in legal action by Universal; that studio had recently reissued the feature version of their Flash Gordon serial under the title Rocket Ship (the whole story is related in Jack Mathis’ book Valley of the Cliffhangers).