A mysterious master criminal named Victor Brenda steals the Belgravian Crown Jewels while they’re being exhibited in the United States, murdering an FBI agent in the process. However, the villain loses track of his prize when the henchman charged with stashing the jewels in a safety-deposit vault is killed before he can inform anyone of the vault’s whereabouts. Brenda sets out to track down a painting that holds a clue to the treasure’s location, but is hotly pursued by FBI Agent X-9 (Scott Kolk), who is determined to avenge his slain colleague and wipe out the stain that the robbery has left on America’s national honor. X-9 (real name Dexter) is both helped and hindered in his battle by two Belgravian agents–Baron Karsten (Monte Blue) and Shara Graustark (Jean Rogers), who are trying to recover their country’s crown jewels and destroy Brenda, and are unwilling to cooperate with Dexter and his G-men.
Like Radio Patrol, Ace Drummond, Jungle Jim, and several other Universal serials produced, written, and directed by ex-Mascot personnel, Secret Agent X-9 feels much more like a Mascot chapterplay than a Universal one. In the entertaining tradition of Mascot outings like The Hurricane Express or Mystery Mountain, it features an unfailingly fast pace, two groups of good guys working at cross purposes, and a mystery villain with uncanny powers of disguise. Its stuntwork and location shooting are not up to Mascot levels, but this is compensated for by Universal’s stronger production values and by a narrative that is much less nonsensically convoluted than the typical Mascot storyline.
Veteran Mascot writers Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, and Wyndham Gittens–along with newcomer Leslie Swabacker–keep their plot moving constantly, with the first half of the serial centering around a continual three-way scramble between Dexter, Brenda, and the Belgravians for the coveted painting; before that scenario can wear itself out, the writers change the plot’s focus at the halfway mark–with the G-men recovering the jewels and intensifying their efforts to capture Brenda, Shara allying with X-9, and Brenda kidnapping Baron Karsten as part of a scheme to get his hands on the jewels again. This narrative shakeup and some strategically placed plot twists–double-crosses by two of Brenda’s associates, repeated thefts and recoveries of the jewels, the utterly unexpected death of a major protagonist, the eventual revelation of Brenda’s identity–serve to keep the serial interestingly unpredictable right through its final chapter.
Despite the serial’s fast pace and multiple plot threads, the narrative never snarls up hopelessly like many of Gittens, Hall, or Trampe’s Mascot screenplays. There are some minor loose ends in the plotting (Why is henchman Marker given custody of the jewels in the first place? Why does the Baron think Brenda is plotting against the Belgravian monarchy when the villain himself never mentions it?) but none of them are seriously damaging to the serial; the characters’ actions make logical sense throughout and plot continuity is maintained from episode to episode. As I mentioned in my review of Ace Drummond, Universal’s less frenetic production schedules apparently allowed Gittens and company more time to work on their scripts than they had enjoyed at Mascot.
Secret Agent X-9 makes no use of the actual plants or factories seen in Mascot and early Republic serials, but Universal’s well-furnished backlots, with their busy city streets and rustic farmsteads, manage to convey almost as vivid a late-Depression atmosphere as such location work would have; the studio’s dockyard/harbor area–with its run-down bars and shops and a tourist-trap pirate ship that serves as the Brenda gang’s hideout–is particularly colorful. The two-story hacienda seen in most of Universal’s Western serials is refurbished here to serve as a remote mansion (dubbed the “Raymond estate” in tribute to Alex Raymond, the artist of the comic strip that served as the serial’s basis); its balconies and secret passages lend further interest to the action, as do the country roads that heroes and villains regularly chase each other down in their big old-fashioned cars.
Period flavor is also very evident in the script’s emphasis on the scientific police work of the then-popular FBI, with the G-men’s crime lab continually utilized to turn up new clues or (as in the serial’s unusual but satisfying final chapter) provide unexpected but air-tight evidence against the villains. Scientific detection is fortunately not overstressed, however; the heroes are never made omniscient, and they’re not above using older detective tricks (like X-9’s array of disguises and his fondness for discovering thieves’ caches by setting phony fires–a stratagem that originated with Sherlock Holmes himself). The G-men also go in for old-fashioned “grilling” of suspects; the very well-shot FBI interrogation of a heavy in Chapter Seven lends another kind of period atmosphere to the proceedings, looking as it does like a scene from a Warner Brothers gangster film.
Directors Ford Beebe and Cliff Smith stage the action scenes with energy if not precision; the serial’s fight scenes (in which Eddie Parker doubles star Scott Kolk and Tom Steele stands in for various heavies) generally have the stuntmen vigorously but sloppily exchanging quick, chopping blows, the Chapter Four boathouse fight providing a strong example. The Chapter Five brawl in the living room of the Raymond mansion is also rather chaotic-looking; the Chapter Seven apartment fight is a bit better-handled, as is the fight in the prop-laden chandler’s shop in Chapter Eight; the Chapter Twelve one-on-one fight between X-9 and the unmasked Brenda is quite good. Parker’s periodic leaps over walls or from the mansion’s balcony add a nice touch to the action as well.
The serial’s car chases are excellent, particularly the one in Chapter Two and the lengthy sequences in Chapters Seven and Eight; the motorboat chase sequences in Chapters One and Nine are also quite exciting. Other action highlights include the shootout at the mansion in Chapter Eleven, with its interesting camera angles, and the G-men’s large-scale assault on the pirate-ship hideout in the final chapter. The serial’s cliffhangers are generally low-key, with car and boat crashes predominating; the most memorable endings are the window fall that closes Chapter Six (which is cleverly resolved with a trick that would be reused in at least two Republic serials) and the apparent harpooning of X-9 at the end of Chapter Eight; the hero’s crushing by automatic gates (Chapter Three) and the car crash precipitated by the “ray that blinds” (Chapter Two) are standouts too.
Scott Kolk does a very good job in the serial’s title role, rattling off his dialogue swiftly and assuredly and conveying an authoritative self-confidence that suits his “ace investigator” character well. His energetic but unflappable manner suggests Ralph Byrd’s at times, although the extremely serious Kolk lacks Byrd’s affability and his talent for displaying alarm in dangerous situations. However, Kolk does break from his straight-faced mold occasionally–in his sarcastic reactions to suspects’ lies, his good-natured interchanges with his sidekicks, and–most impressively–in his reaction to the death of one of those sidekicks; in this scene, he completely drops his rat-a-tat delivery to slowly and quietly proclaim that he’ll “get Brenda for this.” Kolk also gets to unbend a little in his character’s disguise sequences–in one of which he assumes an amusing voice that sounds remarkably like Mortimer Snerd’s.
The beautiful Jean Rogers plays her character with a likable and convincing combination of self-possession and troubled thoughtfulness; she seems coolly capable when maneuvering in pursuit of the jewels, but she also comes off as appealingly regretful of her equivocal position, particularly when arguing with her co-conspirator Baron Karsten over the necessity of concealing their actions from the G-men. This character could have seemed irritatingly wrongheaded in the hands of lesser serial actresses, but Rogers easily makes us sympathize with her dilemma from the start.
Monte Blue has his meatiest serial role here and handles it well; as Baron Karsten, he’s grimly and stubbornly determined but ultimately rather admirable–gravely and almost fanatically reminding Rogers of the seriousness of their mission and brusquely dismissing the G-men’s queries, but also fearlessly and angrily defying Brenda. He spends a great deal of his screen time playing Brenda himself (the villain disguises as Karsten for long stretches of the narrative), and does a good job differentiating the phony Baron from the real one, giving the former a swaggering, gloating, and aggressive manner quite distinct from the latter’s dourly dignified bearing.
Henry Brandon is terrific as Brenda’s lieutenant Blackstone–smugly and arrogantly reminding inferior henchmen of their boss’s supposed infallibility, outlining schemes with cool assurance, and displaying bemused contempt for everyone (his scornful but offhand putdown of Monte Blue in Chapter Six is particularly memorable). When his character occasionally breaks this sleek façade with an outburst of wrath, said wrath is far more intimidating than it would be coming from a crankier heavy.
David Oliver offers likably low-key comic relief as the hero’s taxi-driver friend and informant, “Pidge;” his mild but frequently befuddled manner is amusing without becoming obnoxious or buffoonish, and doesn’t prevent him from functioning believably as a genuine help to the hero. Henry Hunter, as X-9’s G-man colleague Tommy Dawson, delivers his dialogue with competence but does little else, hardly ever changing his facial expression or his vocal inflection and making Scott Kolk seem positively mercurial by comparison.
Larry J. Blake, as FBI bureau head Weaver, seems suitably shrewd but far too laid-back; instead of displaying the somber concern of most serial “chiefs,” he’s blandly even-tempered throughout and comes off as almost cavalier about the whole case. Lon Chaney Jr., on the other hand, makes the most of his background role as one of Brenda’s principal henchmen–snarling out lines like “I’ll fix X-9” with gusto, grinning delightedly over successes, and even amusingly preening himself as X-9 reads out his criminal record towards the end.
Other leading henchmen are played by the slick Bentley Hewitt, the similarly slick but much grumpier Leonard Lord, and–surprisingly–George Shelley, the clean-cut singing cowboy “Dude” from Wild West Days (he manages to be quite acceptable as a resourceful and tough-talking thug). Lynn Gilbert, the heroine of Wild West Days, also turns in a respectable villainous performance as Brenda’s moll, while Eddy Waller–though seen only in the second and twelfth chapters–is memorably colorful as the criminals’ fast-talking and brazenly crooked lawyer.
Robert Dalton is another henchman, William Royle and Al Ferguson have small roles as G-men, future director Thomas Carr recurrently appears as a G-man posing as a news-hawker, and stuntmen Eddie Parker and Tom Steele make multiple appearances as both G-men and henchmen. Edward Peil pops up as a fence, and Bob Kortman has a small but important role as a shady waterfront character named “Trader” Delaney; Jack Cheatham is his thuggish assistant. Max Hoffman Jr. plays the henchman Marker, whose death sets the whole plot in motion, and Elliott Rothe is the ill-fated young FBI agent murdered by Brenda in the first chapter. Si Jenks is very enjoyable as the garrulous old codger who presides over the pirate-ship exhibit (“There’s ghosts a-walkin’ in that old tub!”) The actor who plays Baron Karsten’s father, the Belgravian ambassador, is unrecognizable (at least to me), due to his accent (real or assumed?) and his thick Franz-Josef-like whiskers.
Despite a flurry of fan interest when it resurfaced after being “lost” for years, Secret Agent X-9 ‘s unfamiliar star and non-fantastic plotline have kept it from becoming as popular or as widely known as many of its Universal contemporaries. However, its energetic lead performances (including that of said star), its twisty plotting, and its wonderfully swift pacing make it a very enjoyable outing–especially for serial buffs who treasure the lively but confusing and low-budgeted chapterplays of Mascot; X-9 captures a good deal of the spirit of those outings, but displays it in much more polished form.