VCI Home Video // 1945 // 250 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // April 13th, 2006
"This is just a story. Like many good stories, it never happened and never could happen...But let us imagine that it is 1938, somewhere in the United States." -- on-screen text that introduces The Master Key
A group of men gathers around a table, each with a key. They defer to the head of the table, where an empty chair barks out orders. The chair tells the gathered men that with a device called the Orotron, which can produce unlimited gold, they can attack the U.S. industrial might. Soon they kidnap Professor Elwood Henderson, who invented the device, and fake his death so no one will look for him.
Almost no one, that is. It turns out that Tom Brant (Milburn Stone, Gunsmoke), an agent from Washington, suspects Henderson still is alive. He's suspicious because a dead man was found clutching a tube from Henderson's Orotron. Since he's noticed changes in the gold market, Brant is putting two and two together. "It's the only explanation for the excess gold on the market. It couldn't come from the mines," he says. This is just one small leap for Brant (whose conclusions out of thin air have an uncanny knack for proving correct), but a giant leap of faith for the audience.
Brant shares his suspicions with Police Chief O'Brien (Russell Hicks, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest) and Det. Lt. Jack Ryan (Dennis Moore, East Side Kids, The Mummy's Curse), who introduces himself to Brant and develops quick rapport with him after rescuing the agent from a burning building. Also working with the two men is reporter Janet Lowe (Jan Wiley, Secret Agent X-9). Her relationship with them is rocky at first because they suspect she's linked to mobster Walter Stark, who's involved with the Nazi ring, but she'll soon prove herself loyal.
If three heroes weren't enough, shop owner Aggie's leading a group of "young reporters" who have a knack for getting information on the Nazis without being spotted. They hang out in an abandoned theater and hold their meetings on the stage. Among the off-brand "Dead End" kids here is Alfred La Rue, who soon became famous for bullwhip stunts as Lash La Rue (Law of the Lash) in Westerns. At 28, he may not even be the oldest of these "teenage" crimebusters.
The Nazis here are surprisingly bold, a conclusion I came to when one turned up at the police station as Brant was discussing the case with the police, stealing back the Orotron tube. This is, of course, the dumbest thing a movie Nazi could do, but they have to leave clues broad enough for our heroes to follow somehow. Their main operative (Addison Richards, The Tiger Woman) works as a private eye and hangs out a lot at police headquarters.
The performances here are serviceable; the characters are painted in broad strokes and the actors manage to fill those roles without embarrassment. The heroes are square-jawed, except for Janet, who's torn between duty and a secret...but not that torn. The Nazis are sufficiently, single-mindedly evil as they set traps for our heroes -- and for their own people, as they are disappointed. Henderson (Byron Foulger, Sullivan's Travels) is resolute in refusing to share the secrets of the Orotron, even when he believes no one knows he's alive.
The plot isn't that original. The "mysterious groups having secret meetings" routine dates back at least to Agatha Christie's early The Seven Dials Mystery, and I doubt she was the one to originate the concept. As in the Christie story, our heroes will be trying to find the identity of "The Master Key," seen only as the empty chair most of the way through. It does allow for one neat trick, since the plot summary at the beginning of each new episode comes in the form of a report from one of the men at the table to the chair, with the chair barking out disappointment at the failure to kill our heroes yet again. The miraculous escapes from all the traps and crashes strain credibility after a while, especially when you're sure you saw the building go down or the train crash with the hero inside.
The picture quality here isn't great, presumably because of poor original source material. You'll find lines and spots all the way through, and some action scenes supposedly taking place at night are too dark to follow well. Some car chases and action scenes seem to rely on stock footage, hinting at a bargain-basement budget.
The extras include the trailer (with huge titles flashing across the screen) and biographies of several people involved with The Master Key, including the stars and directors Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. The biographies have lots of information, but the text screens move at their own pace. Usually this was slow for me, but when I saw an interesting fact I wanted to write down to share with you -- that Dennis Moore appeared in the last Republic serial, King of the Carnival, and the last U.S. serial, Columbia's Blazing the Overland Trail, both in 1956 -- it was a little too fast.
Still, even considering the obvious flaws, I enjoyed The Master Key. I kept watching to see how the heroes pulled off a last-minute escape this time.
Let's face it; people just like hokey cliffhangers. Today's 24 has high-tech sets and a slick production, but you can foresee Jack Bauer's miraculous escapes, evil cabals, and inside betrayers (if more polished) in the escapes and treachery of the old-time movie serials. Weren't you waiting till next week to see if it was an old-fashioned cheap trick when you saw Edgar trapped with the nerve gas? And hoping it was a cheap trick? There's even another Jack Ryan in hair-raising battles with bad guys nowadays, thanks to Tom Clancy's adventure novels. Some things never change.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 250 Minutes
Release Year: 1945
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Original Trailer
* Bonus "Classic Cliffhanger" Trailers
* Wikipedia on Lash La Rue