A power-mad masked villain known only as the Octopus, bent on acquiring control of “the very nerve centers of the nation,” is targeting transportation companies, power plants, and banks in a vicious reign of terror. The police, unable to cope with the Octopus’s depredations, receive welcome aid from wealthy criminologist and ex-Army Major Richard Wenthworth (Warren Hull)–and also benefit from the less welcome aid of the Spider, a masked vigilante who combats the underworld with effectively deadly results, but whose disregard of due process makes him just as big a public enemy in the eyes of the law as the Octopus himself; only Wentworth’s closest friends–his fiancée Nita Van Sloan (Iris Meredith), his loyal wartime subaltern Jackson (Richard Fiske), his ferocious Sikh manservant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), and his butler Jenkins (Don Douglas)–know that the millionaire detective and the Spider are one and the same. Backed by this trusty team of aides, Wentworth/the Spider repeatedly engages the Octopus’s agents in battle and frustrates the villain’s counter-moves against him and his assistants, all the while dodging the suspicions of his friend Police Commissioner Kirk (Forbes Murray).
The Spider’s Web, based fairly faithfully on a popular series of pulp novels, is almost invariably ranked by serial buffs as Columbia Pictures’ greatest chapterplay–a judgment with which I would concur. Despite a fair share of minor flaws, its winning combination of strong production values, vivid atmosphere, excellent action sequences, and breakneck pacing–and its overall air of exuberant energy–cannot be matched by any of the studio’s other releases, even that handful produced–like Web–by Columbia’s in-house serial-maker Jack Fier.
Robert E. Kent, Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Martie Ramson’s script for Spider’s Web is composed of little more than a series of battles between the Octopus and the Spider, as one attempts to rob or blow up various targets and the other protects said targets–with the villain occasionally taking time out from his larger schemes to make direct assaults on the hero . The repetitiveness of this plotting never becomes a real detriment to the serial, however; the writers keep their characters so constantly on the move that audiences have little time to notice the circuitous nature of the storyline, while investigation into the Octopus’s secret identity in later chapters also helps to give the narrative a certain sense of progression. Sometimes the pace is so fast that plot threads warranting further attention (like the Octopus’ ruthless removal of a gas-station man working as a Wentworth informant) are lost in the shuffle, but for the most part Spider’s Web features a much more cohesive storyline than its immediate Columbia predecessor, Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.
However, the real strengths of the Spider’s Web lies not in its script but in its action scenes and its lead performances. Directors Ray Taylor and James W. Horne–the latter completely eschewing the tongue-in-cheek comedy he brought to his later solo chapterplays–fill the serial with an impressive array of action sequences, with the assistance of a stunt team that includes George DeNormand, Dave O’Brien, Bud Geary, and Tom Steele. The action scenes benefit from considerable variety, with gunfights (unusually lethal ones) predominating but plenty of fistfights, chases, and acrobatic stuntwork mixed in.
Among the most memorable action setpieces are the first-chapter sequence that first introduces us to the heroes–with Octopus agents battling Jackson and Ram Singh as Wentworth tries to land his plane in the face of bomb attacks, eventually parachuting to safety and promptly dropping several villains with his trusty .45–and the bus terminal shootout later in the same chapter. Other highlights include Wentworth and Kirk’s escape from a besieged office-building in Chapter Two, the lengthy series of fistfights and gun battles at an Octopus headquarters that occupies parts of both Chapters Four and Five, Chapter Five’s theater shootout, the Spider’s rope-swing onto the top of an omnibus and the ensuing battle on the bus’s top in Chapter Eight, and the lengthier display of rope-swinging in the bus garage shootout in Chapter Thirteen, with the Spider moving from wall-ledge to bus as he trades shots with the thugs.
The lengthy rooftop chase and the Spider’s attempted escape by utility wires in Chapter Twelve is also good, although this sequence–like several other scenes in the serial’s second half–is marred by some jarring editing that removes the reaction shots of thugs dropping beneath the Spider’s bullets; apparently the 1938 censors belatedly noticed the body count that the hero was running up–one decidedly high for any 1930s serial protagonist, let alone one operating without official sanction. Fortunately, the final chapter escaped any censorship, allowing the Spider’s climactic invasion of the Octopus’s headquarters to rescue Nita and Jackson–and to dispense summary justice to the villain and his lieutenants–to stand as another of the serial’s action highlights.
The action scenes are further enhanced by the serial’s high percentage of nocturnal scenes, which casts a memorably ominous mood over the proceedings. The serial’s atmosphere is also enhanced by the well-appointed locations, which consist chiefly of Columbia’s city-streets backlots; these locales, with an unusual amount of extras on the sidewalks and vehicles on the roads, not only help the directors and photographers in giving a gritty detective-pulp feel to the action, but also aid in suggesting the bustling life of the city under threat–which makes the Spider’s crusade seem more urgent than that of many serial heroes, who tend to conduct their war with master criminals in a kind of vacuum free of bystanders.
The serial’s chapter-ending cliffhangers are quite well-staged, with the Chapter One bus explosion, the Chapter Two sequence with the out-of-control crane hoist, the excellent elevator plunge in Chapter Nine, and the Spider’s fall from a severed high-wire at the end of Chapter Twelve standing out. However, the resolutions to these and other scenes are slightly marred by the garrulous narrator common to all Columbia’s late 1930s serials, who breathlessly recaps the plot as the footage from the previous episode plays and ceases just as the cliffhanger is resolved, distracting the audience while they’re trying to see how the hero is going to make his escape. As in other Columbias of the period, the narrator and editors also make the mistake of showing and describing the cliffhanger for next week at the end of every episode, negating the current episode’s cliffhanger.
As aforementioned, the serial’s leading performances are another big factor in its success. The charismatic Warren Hull gives his character a suavity, intelligence, and aristocratic self-assurance rare in serial heroes, and makes both the “millionaire socialite” and “brilliant detective” aspects of his character utterly credible. However, he never comes off as too slick or too arrogant, displaying convincing esteem and affection for his crimefighting aides–and for his misunderstanding friend the Commissioner as well–throughout the serial. He also gets some entertaining comic moments when Wentworth periodically masquerades as over-the-hill safecracker Blinky McQuade to gather information in the underworld, changing his appearance with minimal but effective makeup and adopting an amusingly croaking voice.
Iris Meredith’s delicate beauty and quietly courageous bearing make her an equally appealing heroine; her wryly good-humored reaction to the postponement of her character’s marriage to Wentworth in the first chapter endears her to the audience from the start. Richard Fiske plays the part of Jackson with infectious energy and enthusiasm, making his character a cheerful daredevil ten times more interesting than most non-comic serial sidekicks. Kenne Duncan is also terrific as the knife-wielding Ram Singh, forbiddingly stern most of the time but always conveying a fierce love of battle beneath the stoicism, both through his air of repressed excitement and the gusto with which he delivers warlike maxims (“He who treads the path of evil shall meet with evil; I will ruin the pigs!”)
Don Douglas, as the fifth member of Wentworth’s team, has a much less active role than Meredith, Fiske, or Duncan, but still gives butler Jenkins a proper combination of intelligence and imperturbability. Forbes Murray is excellent as Commissioner Kirk, his tremendous affability and his briskly professional manner keeping him from ever seeming like a nuisance or a fool. Marc Lawrence–one of the screen’s great gangsters in films ranging from Key Largo to Hold that Ghost–is a welcome presence as the Octopus’ second-in-command; his slick, smug, and coolly menacing characterization is so good that it’s a definite disappointment when he’s killed off a little after the halfway mark.
The Octopus himself is one of the less interesting masked serial heavies; his simple white robe-hood is eerily inexpressive but not very visually distinctive, while his voice is a little too roughhewn and New-York-accented to entirely fit the megalomaniacal but highly articulate dialogue he’s given–although its harsh and aggressive tones are well-suited to the Octopus’s frequent angry rants. However, the Octopus’s dangerous “third arm” and his off-screen execution chamber are overall more memorable than the villain himself.
The Octopus suspects are not as well-developed or well-established as they should be, appearing very intermittently throughout the serial. However, the directors do play fair by having the actor eventually unmasked as the Octopus also provide the villain’s voice; the writers also plant some actual clues to the villain’s identity before the final reveal, and turn the heroes’ suspicions in the guilty party’s direction well before the final chapter. The most noticeable suspects are played by Bentley Hewlett, Paul Whitney, grumbling Gordon Hart, and gruff Charles Wilson, with the tremblingly indignant Byron Fougler getting killed too early to qualify as a full-fledged red herring.
Nestor Pavia, Edward Earle, Lane Chandler, John Tyrell, Eddie Foster, Ernie Adams, Dick Curtis, Bud Geary, Tom Steele, Bob Kortman, Kit Guard, and Al Ferguson all pop up as Octopus agents, along with many other familiar faces (the high casualty rates in the serial’s shootouts entail an unusually large amount of henchmen). Aside from Marc Lawrence, the only thug who recurs from chapter to chapter is shifty Lester Dorr as Martin, the henchman who continually but unwisely confides in Blinky McQuade. Beatrice Curtis plays a reluctant Octopus operative who mends her ways when her newsboy brother is threatened by the gang; Gene Anderson Jr. is her spunky sibling. Edmund Cobb appears throughout the serial as a police dispatcher, and Ann Doran pops up briefly as a secretary.
Columbia’s in-house serial productions definitely represent the cream of that studio’s product, and The Spider’s Web just as definitely ranks as the very best of that too-small group of chapterplays. Had the Jack Fier unit been allowed to remain in charge of Columbia’s cliffhangers, it’s quite possible they would have turned out serials far more polished than The Spider’s Web, but they would have been hard-pressed to come up with an outing more fondly-remembered by buffs than Web has proved to be.
Above: Our crimefighters share a deservedly peaceful fadeout scene; Iris Meredith and Warren Hull are on the sofa, Don Douglas standing, and Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan seated in the corners of the shot.