The Sunday Intertitle: Darkest Nitrate

THE MASTER MYSTERY, parts 3, 4 and 5.

Time is the one trap no escapologist can hope to evade — nitrate decomposition takes hold of episode three of Houdini’s serial THE MASTER MYSTERY, and it and the next two episodes are incomplete. The fact that the preserved scenes are mainly daring escapes emphasizes the surreal way the series keeps getting Harry H knocked out, tied up,and threatened with some slow-acting death-trap. The villains always run away and leave him to his fate, usually after shaking a fist at him, when after the first three or four failures you’d think they’d hang around and supervise.

Harry’s escape from the coat-rack he was knotted to in episode two is a highlight of the whole serial — elaborate, tricksy, yet just about credible, making a Keatonesque use of props, architecture and space.

Part three starts at 5:59 and you HAVE TO SEE this escape!

Then the film goes M.I.A. until he’s being dumped in the drink, wrapped in chains. Dragging an opponent with him, he simultaneously murders him while freeing himself, but meanwhile the movie is going up in a decasian decalcomania of piebald dappling. The film has liquified and stuck to itself on the reel. Unreeling, the image has peeled away from the celluloid. It’s eerily beautiful, melancholy and strange. Sic transit gloria Houdini…

“Q” the clanking robot (who isn’t really “Q”), somehow natural enough on a sound stage, looks abruptly hilarious on location. Of course, he was always hilarious, but we notice it anew.

With episode six, the serial becomes once more coherent and whole, and it is to that we will turn our attention next week —

But first, we will be enjoying, I hope, an entire week of supernatural blaxploitation cinema. Solid!

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