Dashiell Hammett and artist Alex Raymond (who would later go on to create Flash Gordon, and then Rip Kirby for the same newspaper syndicate). Universal Studios produced two movie serials based on the character, both simply titled, Secret Agent X-9; the first in 1937 and the second in 1945.
1937 serial has Agent X-9 functioning pretty much as a standard movie
G-Man, chasing after a ring of international jewel thieves. It’s a very
decent serial; Scott Kolk makes an adequate X-9, and Jean Rogers (Dale Arden in Flash Gordon) is a lovely leading lady. Unfortunately, it’s not really a spy story. Instead, it’s pure, Depression-era, cops and robbers melodrama.
The 1945 serial, on the other hand, is a genuine espionage adventure. This one stars a young, up and coming Lloyd Bridges
as Phil Corrigan, Secret Agent X-9. The charismatic and talented
Bridges was a far better actor than most other serial heroes, and his
nascent star quality really infuses the 13-chapter serial with energy.
Unlike some other chapterplays of the era, you don’t get bored between
fistfights and car chases.
The story is set in 1943 on
the aptly-named Shadow Island, a small isle of intrigue somewhere off
the coast of China, which the Japanese have allowed to remain neutral.
Of course, secret agents from all over the world descend upon the
island, which is portrayed as a sort of South Pacific Casbalanca. Shadow
Island is run by a saloon owner named Lucky Kamber (Cy Kendall), but he’s only allowed to operate at the sufferance of a sly and slinky Japanese agent called Nabura (Victoria Horne in faux Asian make-up).
Charlie Chan’s #3 son) that aviation fuel can be manufactured cheaply
by mixing an artificial chemical called 722 with water. Seeing the
obvious benefits for Japan’s war plans, Nabura devises an intricate plan
to steal the formula for 722 from an American scientist in the States.
Fortunately, Australian spy Lynn Moore (Jan Wiley) learns of the plan and, in response to her report, American
Intelligence sends Phil Corrigan to Shadow Island to foil the plot.
Soon after X-9’s arrival, he finds himself not only teamed with the
pretty Aussie agent, but partnered with a very competent Chinese
operative named Ah Fong (the great Keye Luke, Charlie Chan’s #1 son). It’s a good thing, too, because X-9’s got his hands full.
Island swarms with suspicious characters. Among the various factions
maneuvering on Shadow Island are a mysterious French couple – Hotel
owners Papa and Mama Pierre – whose motives and loyalties are unknown,
and an enigmatic gentleman known only as Solo (Samuel S. Hinds)
who sits for endless hours at Kamber’s bar playing tiddley winks.
Additionally, there’s a Japanese submarine (and its crew) standing by to
facilitate Nabura’s scheme, and a "civilian" German freighter commanded
by Herr Kapitan Graf, in port.
Needless to say, double
(and triple) crosses, gunfights, brawls and shadow skulking are the
order of the day on this island of spies, and X-9 has to keep on his
toes if he’s going to foil Nabura’s machinations. The serial is
briskly-paced (unusually so, for a Universal serial, which tended to be
more leisurely than those produced by studios like Republic and
Columbia) by directors Lewis Collins and Ray Taylor,
and has fairly high production values. The pre-WWII setting is
fascinating, and the cliffhangers are all pretty exciting. The final
chapter is satisfying, too – not always the case with these Saturday
VCI Entertainment offers both Secret Agent X-9 serials on DVD. Both look good, but the 1945 serial
looks particularly fine for its age. There’s some occasional, minor
print damage here and there, but the transfer is very solid for the most
part. The VCI disc also includes a commentary over the first chapter by
mystery writer and comic strip historian Max Allan Collins, an interview with Bridges’ son, Beau Bridges, a still gallery, and trailers for other VCI serial discs.
I'm a big fan of old serials, and the 1945 Secret Agent X-9 is one of my very favorites. Not only is it a great serial, but a fun spy movie, too.