B&W, 1939, 211 mins.
Directed by John English and William Witney
Starring Charles Quigley, Herman Bix, David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, Charles Middleton, C. Montague Shaw
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
Well, here’s a fun one! Made at the height of serial mania when short-form continuing stories were a beloved fixture in movie theaters (tucked in between newsreels, cartoon shorts, and coming attractions), this action-packed blast comes from Republic Pictures, one of the reigning champs of adventure serials from 1936 to the mid-‘50s. Along with legendary titles like Nyoka and the Tigermen (where’s that Blu-ray?) this is one of the best, a delirious ride that came out the same year as Republic’s The Lone Ranger Rides Again and Dick Tracy’s G-Men.
Divided into twelve chapters, our saga concerns something rotten going on at the Granville Amusement Centre, where three star acrobats – high diving Gene (Quigley), super-strong Tiny (Bix, aka Bruce Bennett), and Houdini-esque Bert (Sharpe) – are nearly killed during a sudden tent inferno that ultimately claims the life of Gene’s younger brother. They decide to pose as detectives to get to the bottom of what is likely a case of arson and go after the trail of the company owner, Horace Granville (Mander), a millionaire businessman who sent his old partner, Harry Crowel (Middleton, best known as Ming the Merciless in multiple Flash Gordon serials), to the slammer. As it turns out, the evil Crowel – now known his prisoner number, 39013 – is impersonating the kidnapped Granville, who is being kept in a mock prison cell and threatened with an elaborate death if his captor doesn’t make it out alive from each of his wicked schemes. Soon the three daredevils find themselves engaging in real, life-threatening feats of heroism more challenging than anything they ever faced under the big top.
The first installment of the serial, “The Monstrous Plot,” clocks in at 27 minutes and sets up the foundation of the story, with the rest of the episodes running a more typical 16 minutes and change. The idea of throwing daredevils into a real-life crime story is a fun one that results in some wild images, including a memorable early motorcycle race inside a flooding tunnel that’s one of the highlights of the Republic catalog. The fact that much of the story is set among the upper crust gives it a polished, elegant air that contrasts nicely with the atmospheric underground cell scenes, which have a more typical cliffhanger tone.
Only released legitimately on VHS for decades, Daredevils of the Red Circle comes to Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber with a very impressive transfer for a vintage serial (touted as a new 4K scan), featuring a beautifully modulated gray scale and rich blacks that give this a much healthier look than many of its peers on home video. Fans should definitely be pleased to see how pristine it looks here, and it greatly enhances the dizzy thrills on display when you can more fully appreciate all the stunt work and rear projection trickery to see how the action sequences were achieved. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio also sounds very clean without being excessively scrubbed. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided, and film historian Michael Schlesinger chimes in with the sole but welcome bonus feature, an audio commentary for four episodes (one, four, nine, and twelve) in which he runs down the history and pleasure of Republic serials, the challenges of finding stunt men to pull off the feats here even with a real one in the cast, and the role of serials in moviegoing life in the 1940s.
Reviewed on June 12, 2017.