In 1942 Tokyo, during the early phase of the war in the Pacific, Japanese scientist Hakahima (Benson Fong)–a pre-war pupil of the American scientist Albert Raymond–accidentally discovers that an old sample of Raymond’s discarded explosives formula, “7-22,” can be mixed with distilled water to create a perfect synthetic fuel. The discovery delights the Japanese military–but, unfortunately for them, the formula for 7-22 still resides in Raymond’s files in California. Hoping to procure the formula before the Allies can realize its worth, the Japanese turn to their ruthless espionage operative Nabura (Victoria Horne)–who sets up espionage headquarters off the China coast on the privately-owned “neutral” isle called Shadow Island, a haven for fugitive criminals and a convenient crossroads for spies. Nabura plans to use some of the American criminal expatriates on Shadow Island as cat’s-paws in a scheme for procuring the papers; however, she soon finds herself dueling with US agent Phil Corrigan (Lloyd Bridges), who’s been sent to the island to find out the reason for Nabura’s activities there. Corrigan receives aid from Chinese agent Ah Fong (Keye Luke) and from Australian operative Lynn Moore (Jan Wiley), who poses as a quisling radio broadcaster; Nabura is backed by the crews of a Japanese sub and German ship and by various island criminals. “Lucky” Kamber (Cy Kendall), Shadow Island’s mercenary and opportunistic owner-ruler, cagily presides over the deadly strife between these two factions, hampering and helping both sides by his attempts to use their struggle to profit himself.
Secret Agent X-9’s plot–like that of most Universal serials from the studio’s final period (1943-1946)–is extremely complicated, and gives rise to innumerable dialogue scenes that in turn reduce the serial’s number of action sequences. However, while X-9 is definitely talky, it remains very involving throughout, partly because of its distinctive characters and excellent cast (assets it shares with most other late Universals), but also because of its overall plotting–which, though complex, maintains a far higher level of interest and suspense than the majority of its Universal contemporaries.
The use of “Shadow Island” as a setting is largely responsible for the unusually suspenseful atmosphere of X-9; by isolating their heroes on the villain-dominated isle, writers Joseph O’Donnell, Patricia Harper, and Harold Wire lend a high degree of tension to the action. Unlike the protagonists in Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, Secret Service in Darkest Africa, and almost every other World War Two serial, Corrigan and Ah Fong aren’t taking on Axis agents in Allied territory, with friendly police at their back; instead, they’re battling numerically superior and better-organized Axis agents in a near-lawless land, with only their wits and the doubtful “official” protection of the untrustworthy Kamber standing between them and quick annihilation. The heroine’s pose as the villains’ ally adds further suspense to the proceedings; the Lynn Moore character walks a dangerous tightrope throughout the serial, surreptitiously helping Corrigan and Ah Fong while trying to remain in Nabura’s good graces.
Above: Cy Kendall (the stocky fellow in the white suit) declares “open season” on Shadow Island’s secret-agent inhabitants. Keye Luke is on the far left, Jack Overman and Lloyd Bridges are on Kendall’s right and left (respectively), and Victoria Horne is standing with back to camera at the far right.
The Shadow Island setting also allows for an interesting array of colorfully shady supporting characters with their own agendas–including Kamber, his laconic gambling-house manager Solo, boarding-house proprietors Mama and Papa Pierre, and small-time crook Drag Dorgan; the scripters use these various personages (and others) to provide welcome plot twists, yet do so without making the narrative feel over-crowded. The writers’ use of Kamber is particularly effective; unlike some of Universal’s (and Columbia’s) secondary heavies, he never becomes so prominent as to steal the thunder of the hero or the principal villain, but does engage in enough skullduggery to add some good wrinkles to the story. The various attempts by Corrigan and Nabura to manipulate him for their own ends (and his own counter-manipulations) make for some enjoyably devious confrontations between the characters; the piece of three-way trickery in the Chapter Nine office scene (pictured below) is especially memorable.
Above: Nabura uses a hidden gunman to sweat information from Lucky Kamber–not knowing that the hand on the gun is actually that of Corrigan, who’s replaced her henchman and is getting an earful as well. Neither Corrigan nor Nabura realize, however, that the information Kamber is “spilling” is really intended to lead them both into a trap (life is complicated on Shadow Island).
X-9’s narrative is not only suspenseful, and well-balanced when it comes to factional chicanery: it also maintains a gradual but definite forward momentum. The first three chapters are devoted to Corrigan’s arrival on the island and his abortive investigation of a failed attempt on the 7-22 formula, but once Hakahima comes to the island in Chapter Four and presents Nabura with a new plan for acquiring the secret of 7-22 (training selected Shadow Island criminals to impersonate Professor Raymond, performing plastic surgery on them, and sending them to America to steal the formula), the narrative starts moving slowly and surely towards the climax—with Corrigan inching ever-closer to the discovery of Nabura’s objectives, as the “class” of Raymond imposters simultaneously proceed towards their “graduation.” The plot detours caused by the aforementioned double-dealing of Kamber and other characters, along with additional twists like the death of a key villain and the Japanese navy’s unexpected takeover of the island, help to prolong the serial without letting it become too repetitive. Incidentally, said conclusion is unusually strong for a Universal serial finale, particularly one of such a late vintage; X-9 climaxes not with the already-defeated heavies destroying each other (as in far too many Universal outings) but with Nabura being crushed by the hero’s cleverness just as she’s apparently triumphed.
X-9’s screenplay, though well above average, is not flawless; as in all late Universals, there are still plenty of needlessly wordy (and occasionally awkward-sounding) expository sequences in which the characters remind us of who they are, what they’ve done, and what they’re going to do; it’s tempting to read the impatience of the Nazi officer Captain Grut during the villains’ repeated discussions of the value of 7-22 (“Ja, I’m aware of that”) as the writers’ own commentary on this wordiness. Most of the dialogue in these recap scenes is quite well-written, however; the continual reminders of Shadow Island’s peculiar international status make for some particularly good ripostes (Kamber: “neutral means charging everyone the same price.”) The wartime propaganda in the script is generally well-handled, too–being far more deftly inserted than that in Don Winslow of the Coast Guard or Adventures of the Flying Cadets. There are still a few heavy-handed bits (like Ah Fong’s sententious declaration that “bushido can appeal to no reasonable man of good will”), but the heroes and villains overall spend surprisingly little time lecturing us on how capable the Allies are and how mean and disunited the Axis are (this is probably partly due to the fact that the war was winding down as this serial was produced).
Despite all the plotting, counter-plotting, and dialogue-recapping in X-9, the serial still finds time to serve up some good action scenes; the latter half of Chapter Two—which features the hero’s escape from the German ship Lorelei, a dockyard shootout, a second shootout at an internment camp, a chase through the woods, and a cliffhanger scene with the hero trapped in a blazing pool—is particularly exciting. The first-chapter fistfight in Kamber’s casino, the Chapter Five car chase, the Chapter Seven ship’s-hold gunfight, the fistfight at the mine in Chapter Nine, and the Chapter Twelve motorboat escape from the sub are all memorable as well. Tom Steele, Dale Van Sickel, Gil Perkins, Ken Terrell, Eddie Parker, and Bud Wolfe–who all play bit parts as German sailors or Shadow Island crooks–handle the necessary punching, leaping, and stunt-driving in these and other sequences. Universal’s backlot dockyards, lake, roads, cave, and woods–along with well-furnished indoor sets like Kamber’s “House of Shadows” casino or the staterooms of the German freighter Lorelei–serve as effective backdrops to the action.
Above, top left: Lloyd Bridges, disguised as a Nazi officer (and doubled by Eddie Parker), makes a flying leap to escape the German ship Lorelei. Top right: Bridges flees pursuers during the Chapter Five car chase. Bottom left: Keye Luke shoots it out with the heavies in the Lorelei’s hold. Bottom right: Bridges (doubled by Dale Van Sickel) takes a punch during the mine fight.
The majority of the action in X-9 takes place at the beginning and end of each episode, with most of the intervening screen time being devoted to dialogue that recaps last week’s developments and sets up the situation for the next cliffhanger. These cliffhangers are generally excellent; the Chapter Five ending, in which Nabura spotlights Corrigan in a dark room and apparently guns him with down a machine gun, is a standout, as are Corrigan’s strafing by a Japanese plane at the end of Chapter Six, the receding-floor deathtrap in Chapter Eight, and Ah Fong’s brush with drowning at the close of Chapter Ten. Except for the resolution to the Chapter Three truck crash, there are none of Universal’s typical “they-lived-through-it” cliffhanger escapes to be found here; in fact, the Chapter Nine mine cave-in and the Chapter Eleven motorboat explosion are resolved through unexpectedly creative misdirection on the part of the writers and of directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins.
The cast members of X-9 do a terrific job of further individualizing their already distinctive characters. Lloyd Bridges, in his first starring role in any venue, makes an outstanding hero–tough, sly, eagerly energetic, quietly earnest, convincingly alarmed, and wryly humorous by turns. His gruff sincerity during his man-to-man talk with the patriotic crook Jack Roberts, his hearty chuckling when he turns up to surprise Kamber after escaping a death-trap set by the latter’s men, or his grim flippancy as Nabura prepares to drop him into a spike pit all show talent and charisma far beyond those of the average serial star; one wishes that he had headlined the casts of a few more chapterplays.
Keye Luke has his best serial role as co-hero Ah Fong–who is much more assured and articulate than Luke’s polite, accented Kato in The Green Hornet, and much more urbane than his cheerfully straightforward Captain Wing in Adventures of Smilin’ Jack. Luke does show his characteristic affability in his scenes with Bridges, but he’s alternately suave and steely in his various confrontations with the villains–whether trading formal Oriental insults with Nabura or determinedly braining a Japanese sailor with a rifle butt. The beautiful Jan Wiley brings an appropriate sophistication and intelligence to her role as the double-agent heroine–coolly deflecting Nabura’s suspicions and delivering her “propaganda” broadcasts (actually coded messages for Australian intelligence) with coldly precise emphasis. She’s also given opportunities to display some likable warmth, and does it quite well–particularly in her occasional frustrated outbursts over being unable to openly assist Corrigan and Ah Fong.
Unlike Wiley, Victoria Horne’s Nabura never shows even an ounce of warmth; although her attempt to appear more Japanese (her makeup is minimal) by keeping her eyes half-closed at all times occasionally gets distracting, she wisely avoids the use of an assumed accent. Instead, she delivers her lines in a forceful and menacingly icy tone that makes her seem quite sinister and more than compensates for her rather odd appearance. George Lynn and Clarence Lung, as Nabura’s chief henchmen Bach and Takahari, make an excellent pair of action heavies. Lynn gives his character a murderous scowl, a growling voice, and a grimly implacable manner, while Lung plays his part with a restrained irritability that always seems about to give way to murderous rage (and does so in more than one scene).
Portly, cynical-looking Cy Kendall is perfectly cast as Lucky Kamber, using his oily voice and sarcastic sneer to excellent effect as he taunts or bargains with heroes and villains alike. On the other hand, the chipper Benson Fong is almost too likable for the part of the scientist Hakahima; although he performs some respectably villainous gloating in one scene, he makes his character seem more like a harmless and enthusiastic researcher than a real heavy; one feels rather sorry for him when he becomes the prime target of both Kamber and Corrigan at the halfway point.
Hulking Jack Overman looks and acts properly thuggish as Marker, the head of Kamber’s island police force, although he has little to do besides hang around the House of Shadows and perplexedly comment on the action. Samuel S. Hinds, as the House of Shadows’ phlegmatic but cagey manager Solo, also never stirs outside the casino–but ultimately plays a much more pivotal part in the plot. Hinds makes the most of this colorful role, delivering sarcastic comments or laconic advice in memorably deadpan fashion, while his character plays a never-ending game of tiddly-winks.
Ferdinand Munier, as the garrulous and lazy Papa Pierre, and Ann Codee, as his frequently exasperated wife, provide lively but restrained comic relief as they bicker with each other and worry over the intrigue surrounding their boarding-house–but also provide a touch of mystery through their repeated eavesdropping on the other characters. Edward Howard is very good as the drawling, insolent Drag Dorgan, who figures prominently in the early chapters; Arno Frey is properly curt and aggressive as the Nazi officer Captain Grut, but spends all his screen time discussing the progress of the 7-22 scheme with Nabura or Hakahima. Beal Wong, as the slimy Japanese sub commander Korakagu, has even less to do.
Mauritz Hugo plays one of the criminals selected to impersonate Professor Raymond–as well as Raymond himself, who’s only seen in faux newsreel footage screened for Nabura’s class of impostors. Stanley Price and Dick Scott play Hugo’s fellow-pupils, and Ted Hecht is the shady plastic surgeon retained to operate on them. George Eldredge has a noticeable part as a rejected impostor candidate, while George Chesebro is seen very briefly as another reject. John Merton, Jack Rockwell, Jack Clifford, and I. Stanford Jolley pop up as other Shadow Island crooks, while Budd Buster plays a less shady island denizen. Nick Warwick is the ill-fated American agent Terry Haney in the first chapter (whose murder serves to establish the risks of espionage on Shadow Island), and Henry Wadsworth has a good role as the semi-crooked Jack Roberts, Nabura’s unwitting courier in Chapter One. Barry Bernard is an Australian intelligence officer, Gene Roth plays Arno Frey’s aide-de-camp, Zon Murray has a bit as a German sailor, and Edmund Cobb is the bartender at the House of Shadows.
X-9’s music score is for the most part a serviceable but unremarkable mixture of familiar cues from Universal’s library–except for the opening title theme. Originally composed by Frank Skinner for Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (also a Universal production), it’s a memorable, dramatic, and rather ominous-sounding march that effectively underscores both the military and espionage aspects of the plot.
Secret Agent X-9 ultimately ranks as the best of Universal’s late serials; its colorful setting, the suspenseful style in which it stacks the deck against its heroes, its first-rate characterizations, and its strong cliffhangers make it very rewarding viewing despite its talkiness and complexity. Most of its Universal contemporaries are more interesting for their lead performances than for their plotting, but X-9 manages to place its excellent cast in a compelling espionage adventure–thus making itself enjoyable on multiple counts.
A note on the title and the source material: Secret Agent X-9 began as a comic strip in 1934, written by Dashiell Hammett and drawn by the famed cartoonist Alex Raymond; X-9 was originally depicted as a rather hard-boiled G-man who used the alias of Dexter and spent his time fighting home-grown crime in America’s big cities. Universal adapted this incarnation of the strip into their 1937 Secret Agent X-9 serial, and chose to adapt the property again in 1945. However, in the years between the two serials, the strip had almost completely changed its tone and focus; Raymond and Hammett had both moved on to other work, while X-9 had been given a real name (Phil Corrigan) and had become a less hard-bitten and more standardized adventure hero who participated in far-flung duels with foreign agents. Hence, Universal made no attempt to present the new X-9 serial as a sequel to the old one, simply reusing the 1937 outing’s title instead of calling the 1945 one something like Secret Agent X-9 on Shadow Island (hence making it necessary for me, seventy years later, to put the 1945 serial’s date in the title of this blog post, in order to avoid overwriting my review of the 1937 serial). Aside from the hero’s identifying number and the coincidental presence in both chapterplays of a minor character named Marker, there’s absolutely no connection between the two X-9 outings–although these two similarities understandably caused many historians to refer to the 1945 X-9 as a “remake” of the 1937 one, during the years when both serials were lost to all collectors.