The Sunday Intertitle: The Chair of Death
We pause in our supernatural blaxploitation onslaught to bring you another episode of our Exciting Weekly Serial –
So, after the incomplete/missing episodes three, four and five of THE MASTER MYSTERY, Houdini’s serial returns to something like its complete form with episode Six. Since the surviving parts of the previous three parts are mainly the traps and escapes, it’s a relief to get some plot again — especially as this one features a really sweet scene with heroine Marguerite Marsh (INTOLERANCE), easily the best actor in the show apart from HH himself. They make a lovely couple.
But first Harry has to escape from an electric chair. Fortunately the unnamed thug in the tartan cap (who trades concussions with Harry throughout the series) trips over a small box and concusses himself, allowing Harry some wriggle time. Extricating himself from the Chair Of Death, he slugs the thugs and rescues MM from the over-amorous yet anatomically ill-equipped Automaton (perhaps he has special attachments, like a vacuum cleaner).
He’s got “Pay the rent!” running on a tape loop just behind his mouth-grille.
Back at Brentrock House, evil patents swindler Paul Balcom is monitoring conversations throughout the house with his dictaphone, so Harry stages a fake break-up with Marguerite. “I hate you!” they declare via intertitles, all the while kissing and shushing each others’ giggles. Really lovely, affectionate scene, more human than any of the other shenanigans.
The playful chemistry between these two is only exploited in the odd interlude between the frenetic action sequences, but it makes all the difference. THE MASTER MYSTERY is like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in that sense.
Then we get to see Harry displaying some more cunning 1920s spycraft at a sleazy drinks establishment, the Black Tom Cafe poking a hole in his newspaper so he can peek through at his targets, Balcom’s dastardly son, and his occult voluptuary, Deluxe Dora.
All those violent blows to the brain must have affected Harry’s wits, since Dora has able to pull off exactly the same trick Harry just pulled on Balcom — she pretends to have broken up with Balcom Jnr and lures Marguerite into a trap. Harry, meanwhile, is dropped down a trap door and brained with a cosh.
Down in the cellar, Harry is bound in barbed wire on the orders of the Automaton, who stands amid a stack of cans of nitric acid, just as if he owned the place. (All cafes have tins of nitric acid in the basement. It’s a major ingredient in espresso.) Not realizing that leaving Harry tied up and facing certain death is a really bad idea, the henchmen spill the acid on the floor and leave the slumbering escapologist in the path of a Slowly Spreading Puddle of Dissolution!!!
Can you bear the excitement? I don’t see how. Buy the serial (and Harry’s other works) here — Houdini: The Movie Star (Three-Disc Collection), or follow along on YouTube. Here’s a good book on the remarkable Mr H: The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero