Directors: William Witney and John English
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Kino Lorber, along with Paramount Pictures, has released on Blu-ray DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE, the 1939 12-chapter serial from Republic Pictures, written by Barry Shipman, Franklin Adreon, Rex Taylor, Ronald Davidson, and Sol Shor, directed by William Witney and John English, and starring Charles Quigley, Herman Brix (Bennett), David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, Charles Middleton, C. Montague Shaw, Ben Taggart, Raymond Bailey, Fred “Snowflake” Toones, and Tuffie the dog. Considered to be among the best serials ever made by experts of the form, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE is indeed a frequently rousing example of the chapter play, with an ingenious, suspenseful plot, solid acting, breakneck direction, and top notch special effects. KL has included a commentary track from Michael Schlesinger, along with some original trailers, for this super 4K scanned black and white full frame transfer.

The Granville Amusement Pier, on Southern California’s golden coast. A trio of daredevils are the main attraction: high diver Gene Townley (Charles Quigley, THE SHADOW, MEXICAN SPITFIRE OUT WEST), circus strong man “Tiny” Dawson (Herman Brix, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, THE LONE RANGER) and escape artist Burt Knowles (Dave Sharpe, TEXAS TO BATAAN, HAUNTED RANCH). The group is rounded out by Gene’s young brother, Sammy (Robert Winkler, PALS OF THE PECOS, THE WILDCAT OF TUSCON), and his smart-as-a-whip Border Collie, Tuffie (Tuffie the dog, HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS). Unbeknownst to the daredevils, escaped con Harry Crowel (Charles Middleton, FLASH GORDON, JIGGS AND MAGGIE IN COURT), better known by his inmate number, “39013,” is hell-bent on destroying every business entity controlled by Granville Holdings—and the Amusement Pier is next on his list. Crowel, a former partner of wizard business tycoon Horace Granville (Miles Mander, TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE, THE SCARLET CLAW), seeks revenge against Granville for squawking to the cops about Crowel’s embezzlement, which resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. And how is 39013 setting about destroying Granville Holdings? By masquerading as the old boy, living and working in Granville’s swell manor house, while the real Granville is locked away in a secret basement cell, where he is further tormented by 39013’s weighted poison gas contraption (suffice it to say: if 39013 doesn’t come down every day and level off that device, the real Granville is going to snuff it). So when Sammy bites the dust after 39013’s henchman rig the daredevils’ high dive gag with gasoline, burning down the whole pier (nobody smelled 2,000 gallons of gasoline, huh?), the three daredevils naturally seek revenge...by asking to work for fake Granville. What follows is one close shave after another as the trio, aided by Granville’s granddaughter Blanche (Carole Landis, COWBOYS FROM TEXAS, ONE MILLION B.C.)—as well as the mysterious clue-dropping “Red Circle”—try and foil 39013’s various fiendish plots.

I’m certainly no expert on serials, but I’ve watched quite a few, and without a doubt, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE is one of the best examples I’ve seen of the chapter play form. Scripted and shot with the economy associated with this type of long-form series, but not at the expense of solid action and suspense, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE may time out at over three hours...but it played like it was half that long. Scripted by five veterans—Barry Shipman (FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE, LAY THAT RIFLE DOWN), Franklin Adreon (THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS, JESSE JAMES RIDES AGAIN), Rex Taylor (HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS, JUNIOR G-MEN), Ronald Davidson (SPY SMASHER, DICK TRACY VS. CRIME INC.), and Sol Shor (THE YUKON PATROL, KING OF THE ROCKETMEN)—and helmed by Republic Pictures’ most accomplished directorial duo, William Witney and John English (ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION, DRUMS OF FU MANCHU), DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE keeps an admirably straight face during all the preposterous derring-do, giving it a sheen of (almost) A-level respectability that you rarely see in serial outings.

At the opening of chapter 1 ("The Monstrous Plot"), jumping right into the middle of the story, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE doesn’t waste time on detailing villain 39013’s backstory, or how he kidnapped Granville, or even his initial plans to destroy Granville’s empire. Just a few lightning fast newspaper headlines and a zippy montage takes us right to 39013’s final few objectives, a brilliant move that makes his villainy seem overpowering and inevitable. Pushing the serial format further, while giving the daredevil trio real motivation to pursue 39013, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE knocks off the little kid character Sandy almost immediately—a big shock when one was expecting lots of cute action over the next 11 chapters, with Sammy and Tuffie helping the big boys solve the mystery (Tuffie still gets the movie’s best gag: ripping the “face” off 39013). The result certainly isn’t on the level of Shakespearian tragedy, but the boy’s death does lend a serious, somewhat somber undertone to the rest of the series that almost never shows up in similar contemporary chapter plays.

What follows in DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE doesn’t deviate terribly from the already well-established conventions of the genre (as noted by others, the leads are “regular” guys compared to the detectives and agents and superheroes that mostly populated other serials...but relatively speaking, circus daredevils with Olympic-level physicality aren’t “regular guys” compared to you and me). Sure, there are still some goofy bits that you only get in these low budget outings, like lethal gas coming in a canister helpfully labeled “lethal gas,” or Tiny lifting up the back end of a 5-ton automobile (with two men in it, no less), or a trio of intrepid heroes who manage to get themselves locked into a room at least once a day, or some hammy acting that lets you know the focus on creating a relatively realistic story may have wavered a bit (all of the major players do quite well, particularly Mander and Middleton, but Stanley PricePUNCHY COWPUNCHERS, DOPEY DICKSgives a hilariously overdone Richard III impression here that’s priceless).

For the most part, though, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE plays it straight and hard, and it’s surprisingly suspenseful...even though you know, because of the conventions, that the trio is going to survive each cliffhanger. Highlighted by terrific model work and special effects from the Lydecker brothers, one knockout set piece after another follows, from the burning amusement park pier (hard to tell it’s a model), the first of many well-choreographed fistfights on a floating oil rig (and a nicely-framed boat chase after), a “lake of fire” at a chemical plant, lots of scrambling over and around an L.A. gas plant (including a scary-looking zip line from tower to tower), car chases, flooding mines, zapped power lines (I like how people seem able to shrug off getting electrocuted with a couple thousand volts), some sweet Ford Woodie four-wheeling, a mountain slide, and an oil derrick fire (the movie’s best model work—impossible to tell it’s not to scale). Only the final wrap-up disappointed me—not the working out of the mystery, which was fine—but the tedious back-and-forth chase through the woods, unimaginatively shot, and rather anticlimactic in its naturalism after all that gamboling across those huge, impersonal industrial backdrops. But that’s a small carp for such an entertaining serial.

The new 4K scan of the 1920x1080p 1.33:1 black and white full frame transfer of DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE looks quite good. Screen anomalies (scratches, mostly) do appear occasionally, but fine image detail is excellent, grain is tight and filmic, and contrast is nicely valued (blacks are quite deep). The DTS English mono audio track is entirely serviceable, re-recorded with a bit of straightaway heft. Dialogue is clean, crisp. As for extras, there’s an isolated commentary track from film historian Michael Schlesinger, which pops up during chapters one, four, nine, and twelve. He fully admits there isn’t enough to talk about in DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE for over three hours, but he’s quite affectionate towards it (he states it’s his favorite serial). Lots of fun IMDB info (he also credits Jack Mathis’ indispensable book on serials), with only a few occasional lapses in “playing up” his comments (such as apologizing for Fred “Snowflake” Toones, who’s actually quite funny here). (Paul Mavis)