The Sunday Intertitle: Out of the Past
Episode Fifteen — the final installment!
First, if you can contain your excitement, a limerick about how best to arrange your fangs for a life of vampirism, and one on the Frankenstein monster’s tailoring, two subjects of pressing interest to all serious cinephiles.
Last we saw, practically our entire surviving dramatis personae was being menaced by the rampaging Automaton, presumed dormant since the death of his master, corporate scum-basin Herbert Balcom. But NO! The Automaton LIVES! And is coming to get you right now.
The Mechanical Man makes straight for poor Deluxe Dora, instantly identifiable as the most disposable cast member, and fries her mind with an electrical discharge — in fact an animated ZAP drawn directly on the film.
It must still hurt though.
Houdini takes this chance to hoist his girlfriend Marguerite out the window, and follows her at once, as Q the bearded loon and his new-found daughter Zita escape by a side door. The Automaton marches to the centre of the now abandoned office and makes that abrupt two-fisted gesture which is universally translated as “Curses!” And – scene.
Harry shows Marguerite his new “gas bullet” which he hopes can fell the ironclad nemesis, while hinting that Q spoke the truth about Balcom’s being within it. She’s puzzled, but a cutaway to PAUL Balcom, the businessman’s feckless playboy son, alone with his inheritance of halberds, allows us to guess that perhaps it is HE who, in Mick Jagger’s wise words, “squats behind the man who works the soft machine.” (All expository stuff, but enlivened by the real affection, or its convincing simulacrum, displayed between HH and MM throughout the show.)
The Long-Awaited Cure — Mr Brent, having been deranged by the Madagascar Madness (or Laughing Mania) since way back in episode one, is fed an antidote by Q, who is only recently restored to sanity himself. Big Closeups as Brent retrieves his consciousness from the cackling dustbin he’d dropped it in, metaphorically speaking. Recognizing Q, he apologizes for their troubled backstory which I frankly can’t go into at this point but everybody seems friendly.
A Flashback! We see how Balcom and Brent hoodwinked a younger, bright-eyed and beardless Q into signing over his Automaton, before he was shipped off to Madagascar and presumed lost. It’s touching to see Q sans whiskers — he has a lovable big wide Jim Backus mouth — uncredited in the film’s titles, the actor’s identity is as mysterious as the one-initialed character he plays.
Back to the present. Q concludes his narrative, in which is family perish in a shipwreck, with the happy erratum revealing the survival, unrecognized until Episode 14, of his daughter Zita. But there’s more — Mr Brent, with his newly recollected marbles, informs Harry that he is Q’s lost son! Harry’s character name, Quentin Locke, suddenly connects with that dangling initial in a surprising manner. This makes him Zita’s brother, explaining, in a somewhat queasy way, her attraction to him all through the serial.
It’s a combination of one of those Roman farces where everybody turns out to be everybody else’s lost son or daughter (which always makes me think of Beryl Reid’s reaction to such revelations in JOSEPH ANDREWS: “What Fucking Next?”) and the Reconciliation Scene from KING LEAR. In fact, with twice as many restored lunatic fathers and estranged daughters, it’s obviously twice as good as Shakespeare. And it has Houdini and a criminal robot to boot.
“Only one thing remains to make my happiness complete,” declares Harry. He definitely wasn’t referring to the homicidal Automaton, but a homicidal Automaton is what he gets — it smashes through the French windows at more or less that exact moment, crassly interrupting the family gathering, knocking the gas bullet gun from Houdini’s terrified vague fingers, and engaging him in a vigorous bout of Greco-Robo-Wrestling. As in a nightmare, Houdini’s loved ones clutch one another in horror and do nothing to help him.
But — not for nothing known more for his extramural escapology than his career (in this movie) as a chemist, Houdini slips from the steel beast’s arms, retrieves his sidearm, and plugs the advancing mechanoid squarely in the abdomen. There’s nothing Automata hate like gas bullets, and this one certainly turns the trick. Q deftly unscrews the head from his fallen creation, to reveal — Paul Balcom! We are duly stunned. He died as he lived: rampaging criminally in a sheet metal costume.
We iris in to blackness as Houdini stares straight out at the audience, as if to ask, “Did YOU see that coming?”
Coda — this is so beautiful and perfect you should just watch it without commentary from me. Don’t be afraid of spoilers — the serial is 92 years old, you’ve probably already seen it in a previous life. Watch for Houdini’s eye-brow-raising joke at the end — we don’t get an intertitle to explain what they’re laughing at as the film ends, but perhaps some lip-reader out there can enlighten me?
Footnote: with its humanoid robot, wise beard guy, estranged father, surprise offspring and laser beams, THE MASTER MYSTERY clearly anticipates STAR WARS and George Lucas should promptly donate everything he owns to the Houdini estate.
Toenote: even if I’m wrong, it would be a nice gesture.
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