Cliffhanger Corner: ‘Daredevils of the Red Circle’ one of the genre’s greats

By Bob Bloom

“Daredevils of the Red Circle” is not only one of Republic Pictures top serials, but it is a prototypical production that highlights many of the conventions of this long-gone genre.

Produced in 1939 and directed by the crack team of William Witney and John English, the serial centers on three carnival performers — known as the Daredevils of the Red Circle — who, after the death of the kid brother of one of its members, joins the investigation to track down Harry Crowel, an escaped convict who goes by his prison number — 39013.

Crowel is out to destroy all the business enterprises of his former partner, Horace Granville. To do so, he has captured and imprisoned Granville while at the same time, he is impersonating the tycoon.

The Daredevils — high diver Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), strongman Tiny Dawson (Herman Brix) and escape artist Burt Knowles (David Sharpe) — gain entrance to the fake Granville through his granddaughter, Blanche (Carole Landis), whom they saved in the fire that destroyed the amusement park where they performed. It was this fire in which Townley’s kid brother, Sammy (Robert Winkler), was killed.

“Daredevils” combines action and suspense with mystery: We know that Crowel is masquerading as Granville. But how long will it take before our trio of heroes finds out?

Another mystery angle is the appearance of a cloaked figure who leaves clues for the trio on cards displaying their Red Circle emblem. Who is this figure?

The serial plays fair on all aspects. When the identity of the Red Circle is revealed, it is a logical character with a solid motive.

Charles Middleton, best known for battling Flash Gordon as Ming the daredevils of the red circle 2Merciless in a trio of Universal serials, portrays Crowel with stark malevolence.

Here, grounded on Earth, he is a heartless, unforgiving sadist singularly focused on destroying the man he blames for his incarceration.

Miles Mander, who was part of the Universal stock company in Basil Rathbone’s “Sherlock Holmes” series gives a strong performance as the helpless imprisoned Granville and as Crowel, masquerading as the tycoon.

The serial’s action is fast and furious, with the daredevils using their fists, athletic abilities and brains to continually thwart Crowel’s plans.

The cliffhangers are just as good, with the flooding channel tunnel that is the first chapter cliffhanger, being one of the most memorable in the genre’s history.

Plus the resolution also is plausible.

The stunt work is solid as usual for a Republic production. Ironically, Sharpe, one of the best stuntmen in history, had to be doubled by fellow stunt performer Jimmy Fawcett, in order to avoid injury so as not to hold up production.

William Lava’s score is one of his best. Excerpts from it can be heard on the CD, “Music From the Serials” from the original Republic scores, performed by James King and the CinemaSound Orchestra.

“Daredevils of the Red Circle” incorporates all the elements that combine to make a serial memorable: quick-thinking heroes, a heartless villain, solid cliffhangers, some mystery, lots of thrills, action and stunts and an explosive finale.

If anyone were starting to take an interest in serials, I would strongly recommend “Daredevils of the Red Circle” as one of the first chapterplays to check out.

It will definitely whet your appetite for others.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He reviews movies, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (ReelBob.com), The Film Yap and other print and online publications. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com. You also can follow Bloom on Twitter @ReelBobBloom and on Facebook. Movie reviews by Bloom also can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.

“Daredevils of the Red Circle” chapter titles
1. The Monstrous Plot
2. The Mysterious Friend
3.The Executioner
4. Sabotage
5. The Ray of Death
6. Thirty Seconds to Live
7. The Flooded Mine
8. S.O.S
9. Ladder of Peril
10. The Infernal Machine
11. The Red Circle Speaks
12. Flight to Doom

 

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