THE MASTER MYSTERY, Part One.
OK, for the next, oh, fifteen weeks I’m going to be writing about THE MASTER MYSTERY a 1921 Houdini movie serial. Is that OK with you guys?
THE MASTER MYSTERY begins unpromisingly, with a fankle of hairy plot threads dumped over the audience like spaghetti on a cat. But things soon pick up, even though the chances of ever sorting out who is doing what to whom seem vanishingly slight.
Threatening letters (“the Madagascar madness!”), a scheming criminal gang in a cave with a leader called Q, and best of all, an adorable robot henchman, soon create the correct spooky, zany serial ambience, wafting from our minds all the early stuff about patent suppression, which seems about as likely to yield romantic adventure as the trade dispute that opens THE PHANTOM MENACE.
This is the screen’s first robot, discounting such bio-artificial men as the Edison FRANKENSTEIN. He predates 1921’s THE MECHANICAL MAN, from Italy. And he looks more sophisticated than THE MYSTERIOUS DR SATAN’s lurching tin can man, even if he lacks the rich inner life. He has a jaunty walk, googly eyes, and an oil-drum ass (literally, his “can”) that Futurama‘s Bender would surely covet. He apparently has a human brain, like ROBOCOP, and even has breath, since we see him blow out a toxic candelabra.
Why don’t I ever get into conversations like this one?
Houdini spends episode 1 in a lab, fending off a frizzy-haired woman while occasionally listening to headphones or looking meaningfully at an empty beaker. His big heroic act is to open a bolted door with a dismantled umbrella. Admittedly, I enjoyed this sequence as much as I can remember ever enjoying a similar one, but it’s not exactly escaping from a concrete sarcophagus in shark-infested waters, is it?
Looking not unlike the late Curtis Harrington, crossed with Criswell.
Still, after twenty minutes or so, things pick up, and the plot becomes a series of excuses to get Houdini into, and thus out of, handcuffs and straitjackets and locked rooms.
But even the early longueurs are almost entirely made up for just by having the lovely robot walk through shot occasionally. It’s something Ken Loach could learn from.