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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Daredevils of the Red Circle (Blu-ray)
Daredevils of the Red Circle (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // April 25, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $17.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 25, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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One of the best-ever movie serials, Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) boasts a great cast, incredible action sequences and special effects, and perhaps most intriguingly of all, unusual characters and a considerable deviation from the usual chapter-play formula.

For the uninitiated, serials were short subjects presented in movie theaters, commonly on a one-chapter-per-week basis. Though serials date back to the early silent era, when one speaks of serials today it's usually in reference to the serials produced from the 1930s through the mid-‘50s. These typically ran 12 chapters though sometimes up to 15, with the first chapter normally running three reels (about 30 minutes) while all of those that followed ran two reels (around 17-19 minutes). Virtually all of these sound era serials were produced by one of three companies: Universal, Columbia, and Republic. Serials remembered today tend to be sci-fi/fantasy (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers) and/or revolve around superheroes (Batman and Robin, Adventures of Captain Marvel), but there were Western serials, jungle adventure serials, crime-fighting serials, wartime intrigue serials, etc. The form peaked in the late 1930s and early-‘40s, and went into sharp decline as television began making serials obsolete. The best serials are still enormous fun, but absolutely should not be viewed in a single marathon sitting, but rather no more frequently than one chapter per day.

Until Blu-ray came along, serials generally looked pretty terrible on television and home video. A bastard child of the major studios that produced them, little effort was made to preserve or remaster them until Paramount began funding new high-def transfers of a few of them. Oddly, they began with several of the later, weakest one, notably The Invisible Monster and Flying Disc Man from Mars (both 1950, each dreary). Many important serials, including Universal's Flash Gordon (1936-40) trilogy, Buck Rogers (1939) and Gang Busters (1941); Republic's Undersea Kingdom (1936), Jungle Girl, King of the Texas Rangers (both 1941), Perils of Nyoka, Spy Smasher (1942), and Captain America (1944) are among the titles crying out for HD restorations.

Yet, in the meantime, there's Daredevils of the Red Circle. As audio commentator Mike Schlesinger points out, this one's a bit unusual, as its three heroes are ordinary Joes, if circus performers each with a special area of expertise. Most later serials lazily set up a kind of geographical triangulation with their plots, with the scripts forever moving to and fro between the heroes' base, the villain's lair, and a third location where some fisticuffs can occur, more often than not some featureless warehouse where the villain's latest high-tech contraption is put to use against the hero, leaving him in peril at the end of that chapter, often with a big explosion at its close.

Daredevils, while somewhat repetitive, has a lot more variety in this regard, including several ingenious cliffhangers (and resolutions). The 4K restoration is sparkling, and Schlesinger's commentary track is an excellent bonus.

If any serial had a better first chapter than Daredevils of the Red Circle, I've not seen it. Criminal mastermind Harry Crowl (Charles Middleton, concurrently Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon series) has escaped from prison and seeking revenge against the man responsible for his conviction, elderly and infirm philanthropist Horace Granville (Miles Mander). Taking the name of his prison number, 39013 (always pronounced "thirty-nine - oh - thirteen"), Crowl has launched a series of terrorist attacks on millionaire Granville's business interests, hoping to destroy him financially.

His latest target is the Granville Amusement Center, where daredevils Gene (Charles Quigley), a high diver; strongman Tiny (Bruce Bennett, then billed as Herman Brix); and Bert (David Shape), an escape artist, are performing. A spectacular fire set by 39013's men erupts and the entire pier goes up in flames. (This is an amazing sequence aided by the fine miniatures of Howard and Theodore Lydecker.) Gene's kid brother, Sammy (Robert Winkler), dies of burns and injuries soon after, and the three survivors resolve to bring 39013 to justice.

Despite initial opposition from Granville's business manager, Dixon (Ben Taggart), Granville readily accepts the trio's offer of help, aided by Granville's adult granddaughter, Blanche (Carole Landis). What they don't realize is that Granville is in fact 39013 disguising his voice and wearing an elaborate mask. Incredibly, he keeps the real Granville locked up in a cell in a hidden dungeon, to make Granville suffer as he did. However, there's a mole inside the Granville mansion, a cloaked figure passing useful bits of information on paper marked with a red circle. The first chapter ends with 39013's men flooding Granville's mainland-to-island undersea tunnel, another stupendous special effects sequence courtesy the Lydeckers.

While subsequent chapters become a bit more predictable - with way too much running time burned watching 39013 as Granville sneaking down to the dungeon, taking off his mask and taunting his prisoner - the serial is unusually unpredictable, comparatively. Killing off precocious little Sammy in the first chapter is a surprise, for one. In other serials he would have been a junior G-man type sidekick, like Tuffie, the trio's dog, who also plays a significant role in the story.

Besides Middleton, always delightfully menacing in such films, his co-star from Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars from the year before, C. Montague Shaw (former Clay King of Mars), appears as Granville's physician.

But it's really the three protagonists that help make Daredevils so much fun. Nominal lead Charles Quigley was a minor almost-star who headlined several low-budget Columbia Bs made in Canada with a young Rita Hayworth before even lesser films, including a batch of serials, finished out his career. He's no slouch among the three and certainly appealing, but the real draw for most will be Bruce Bennett and, in a rare leading part, stuntman extraordinaire David Sharpe.

The remarkable Bruce Bennett was an Olympic silver medalist in the shot put competition of the 1928 games. He drifted into movies using the stage name "Herman Brix" and was selected by MGM to star in the first of the long-running Tarzan series, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Bennett, however, broke his shoulder while shooting another movie, and the part was instead given to another Olympian, swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. Soon after, however, Bennett was offered the part again, this time for an independently-produced Tarzan serial filmed in Guatemala, The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935). The serial is notable in that Bennett's Tarzan, unlike the Tarzan of the MGM and later RKO features, was an eloquent, well-educated English lord, as in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.

After Daredevils he changed his name back to Bruce Bennett and started all over, first at Columbia and later at Warner Bros. He turns up in bit parts in a few Three Stooges shorts of the period, but quickly rose up the ranks to bigger supporting parts. The best of these was probably in John Huston's great Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), in which Bennett plays a prospector who discovers the secret gold mine of Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston. Bennett is extremely good in his several superbly written scenes. His later career was unremarkable, lots of TV and low-budget program pictures, but his personal life certainly was not. An avid parasailer and skydiver, he made his last skydive at the age of 96, and died in 2007 shy of his 101st birthday.

Along with Yakima Canutt, Dave Sharpe (as he was sometimes billed, as well as "Davey Sharpe") was one of the greatest stuntmen ever, famous especially for his flying leaps, which he does here in some of the fight scenes. He does not, however, perform most of his own stunts; he was much too valuable onscreen to risk injury and shooting delays. Still, all three actors exhibit much physical prowess throughout. Like Yakima Canutt, Sharpe largely gave up acting for steadier employment preforming and coordinating the stunt work of Republic serials and Westerns. Unlike Canutt, Sharpe was a handsome man, and might have enjoyed a long career as an actor had he wanted it.

Video & Audio

Newly mastered in 4K, Daredevils of the Red Circle looks fabulous, as good as most other Paramount-owned Republic titles released to Blu-ray via Kino. It's an enormous pleasure to see them looking so good. Kudos also to those responsible for the package and menu design, the latter now thankfully returning to menu screens after each chapter, rather than continuing onward, the case with several earlier Kino serial titles. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio English mono is also way above par, and the disc is Region A encoded.

Extras

Mike Schlesinger provides a highly informative and observant commentary track on four key chapters. It's amusing and educational at once, and highly recommended.

Parting Thoughts

If you've never experienced the innocent thrills of the best sound-era movie serials, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an excellent place to start. Enormous fun for the whole family, and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.





Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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