Sunday, July 10, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Two: DEATH BELOW

A co-production with the Mondo 70 movie blog.
We left Richard Wentworth, aka The Spider, attempting to drive a truck loaded with explosives away from a bus depot. The first chapter of the Columbia Pictures serial based on Popular Publications' pulp crimefighter ended with the truck blowing up, but chapter two opens (after the obligatory recap, heavy with narration) with an easy cheat: our hero simply dived out the opposite door of the truck before it blew. After dealing with The Octopus's men, The Spider now has to dodge the police who consider him a criminal. He carjacks someone and hops from the moving vehicle into Ram Singh's getaway car some safe distance from the cops.

The Spider then calls in a tip telling Police Commissioner Kirk to raid the Octopus hideout where Wentworth had been imprisoned briefly last episode. Wentworth himself shows up just before the raid and manages to lead his friend Kirk into a deathtrap. The doors and windows lock just after someone tosses in a gas bomb to kill the crimefighters. Wentworth figures that short-circuiting the room by shooting a light-switch will unlock the window, and he and Kirk take the fire escape out.

After things have calmed down, Wentworth checks in at the commissioner's office, where he's meeting with an impatient committee of businessmen who want results from the hunt for the mastermind terrorizing transportation, whose name remains unknown to the good guys. While all these people are big businessmen, they missed one detail in the business news section of the newspaper that Wentworth reads: J. R. Adams, an unknown in the business world, has been named the new head of the Roberts Bus Line, Roberts having been murdered last chapter. Wentworth figures that Adams is either the head terrorist himself or one of his stooges. After asking the businessmen to leave the office, Wentworth discusses his plans for dealing with Adams in detail with the commissioner. Right away, we see The Octopus tell his hooded minions that he expects Wentworth to make a move on Adams and will make plans to deal with Wentworth. This seems like a tip-off that The Octopus -- as you'll recall, we see him as a bulky, limping figure in white robes, hood and mask and hear him through a distorting speaker system -- is one of the big businessmen, or else in cahoots with one of them.

Wentworth isn't satisfied with bugging Adams' office. He and his minion Jackson infiltrate the place as telephone men, and while Wentworth attempts to distract the secretary -- on screen it looks like he's doing a poor job -- Jackson inconspicuously installs a television camera hidden inside a book. By "inconspicuously," I mean that Jackson shows the movie camera the camera embedded in the book, then opens the book to show us all the machinery inside, while we take it on faith that the secretary hasn't noticed any of this.

Back at chez Wentworth, Richard, Jackson and Ram Singh turn out the lights in their TV room to watch the J. R. Adams show, after the set takes a minute to warm up. Right away someone asks Adams what the latest orders are, but he doesn't know apart. However, Wentworth now knows he's dealing with The Octopus, who checks in via intercom soon enough to explain conveniently that he intends to take over "certain industries," warn Adams about Wentworth, and provide some protection in the form of a hostage: Nita Van Sloan fresh from the hospital and still in her aviatrix outfit from chapter one. Wentworth and the boys freak out at the sight and Ram Singh is ready to kill, but you'll notice that Nita takes it all like a trouper, showing neither fear nor any other emotion, very much like an actress who's been given no direction whatsoever in the scene.

Jackson delivers The Spider to the Adams building, where our hero hops on a mechanical hoist so Jackson can send him straight up to the villain's floor. There's a hint of pulp flair to the shot of The Spider poised on the chain outside a window, his cape billowing more dramatically (if not necessarily more manageably) than Batman's in the same studio's infamous 1943 serial. Entering through the window, he kills a guard by knocking him into an electrified doorknob and prepares to enter Adams's office. Inside, Adams's goons are prepared to blast whoever comes through the door, or else blast the still-impassive Nita. The Spider enters, using the dead guard as a human shield. The goons are so shocked by this atrocity that Nita nimbly steps out of the kill box while her enemies stare helplessly. The Spider forces the bad guys to lock themselves in a vault, but he and Nita still have to dodge goons coming upstairs. Out the window they go so they can ride earthward on the hoist, but when Jackson has to fight another goon the hoist slips out of control and Spita (to make a ship of it) begin to plunge at deadly speed, and now Nita screams....

This episode left me wondering what purpose poor Adams was supposed to serve. Obviously he was only going to be a front for The Octopus, but was he appointed only to get Wentworth's attention with his obvious lack of credentials? As for The Octopus, what exactly was his plan to deal with Wentworth? Was it simply to retain Nita as a hostage in case Wentworth showed up, or did he know about the hidden camera after all and had her paraded in front of the camera to draw Wentworth back to the building and its feeble trap? Whatever you make of it, it seems like a waste of his time to focus on Wentworth when he should be consolidating his gains from last episode, but that's serial logic for you. Maybe our villain will have something better to do in chapter three, "High Voltage," coming soon to this blog.

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