The old-time movie serials should never be judged by the same criteria of other films, even those made at the same time period. The serials were invariably outrageous, over-the-top, often ridiculous. But unlike Adam West's 'Batman' the serials were never self-conscious or deliberately campy. Although many serials featured a mildly humorous characters such as Jimmy Olsen or Whitey Whitney to provide occasional comic relief, on the whole, the actors and directors played everything straight and extremely earnest, no matter how absurd the situation or the scene. They did their best at every test.
The old movie serials were made with practically zero budget and at a forced-march pace, shooting in two days what would take 6 months under modern conditions. Those factors, combined with the primitive special effects then available and outdated cinematic conventions, give movie serials a look and feel unlike anything made in the last 52 years.
The final thing a modern person should know before watching an old serial is that 1940's movies had a more realistic vision of the male body than modern Hollywood. The men of this era had survived the depression (and later, WWII). When they were hungry, they ate meat and potatoes. The tough guys of this period lifted barbells and did push-ups, but they didn't have Soloflex, Nautilus, implants or steroids. Think about the last time you went to the beach: how many real world guys were built like Daniel Craig? In summary, it is best to watch the old serials from the perspective that you are looking at some kind of alternate reality, so as to suspend some of the prejudices of the modern cinema. Or perhaps as though one were a tourist in a foreign country: rather than seeing the differences as bizarre or deficient, but instead as being novel, interesting, and sometimes wondrous.
I have seen about 20 serials in my life, and 'Spy Smasher' is hands-down the best. Kane Richmond made an excellent hero and pulled off the double (or is it triple?) role very nicely. The action is well-paced, the special effects and sets, are, by serial standards, excellent. The fight scenes, cliff-hangers, and escapes are all the absolute best I have seen in any serial. The creativity and ingenuity used to choreograph the fight scenes are truly wondrous. If you are familiar with the 'Indiana Jones' films, you can literally see numerous instances where Spielberg borrowed and extrapolated from Spy Smasher.
And although the fight scenes are masterfully choreographed and have great stunt-work, they are much more plausible (therefore more interesting) than the kind of CGI/steroid-assisted stuff you see in modern action movie, in which human beings no longer seem bound by any biological or physical limits, being instead endowed with the powers of a video game.
There are a number of dramatic surprises as well, including some understatedly somber moments. Without spoiling too much, I will say that mortality is a factor.
The opening credits to each chapter, which feature the Morse Code signal for Victory, the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th, and an image of searchlights crossing the sky, accurately evoke the Churchill/Roosevelt mentality of the dark early days of WWII, the summoning up of righteous courage. This undercurrent of the real war, the outcome of which could not yet be known, gives Spy Smasher a resonance not found in other serials. But despite the influence of the historical moment, Spy Smasher is still predominately an escapist joy ride. Which is a good thing.
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