The Spider’s Web [US 1938]

Info: I embedded a fan edit below. It’s basically the full story without the introduction and preview parts for each episode. This trims down the runtime heavily but you can’t really see the cliffhangers.

THE PLOT

The Spider’s Web is an action movie serial about Richard Wentworth, a wealthy, middle-aged amateur criminologist, who is also The Spider, a masked vigilante character who fights crime. A mysterious villain named The Octopus is responsible for sabotaging train line and bridges, causing dozens of people getting killed. With his network of underground criminals, he plans to take over the country’s major industries. After a nearly fatal plane accident, Wentworth, who planned to retired the character of The Spider to marry his fiancée, is forced to investigate the recent criminal activities. As Richard Wentworth he uses his connection to the police to gather information about the ongoing cases, as Blinky McQuade – another persona he adopted in the past – he investigates undercover, and as The Spider he fights The Octopus’ henchmen. The Octopus predominantly tackles the transportation systems and the local power plant to spread chaos and heighten his chances of taking over these businesses. However, Wentworth soon discovers a pattern behind the attacks and realizes that only someone in the inner circle of the police or of his business acquaintances can be The Octopus.

WHAT I LIKE

This movie is really a cheaply produced series of episodes in the style of 1930s detective/vigilante stories. The plot is reasonably entertaining, although some repeating elements are redundant (e.g., the various kidnappings). The episodes always end on a cliffhanger that show The Spider in great peril – however, only some of the cliffhangers work well (e.g., in the power plant), while others feels constructed and/or simply rehash the same idea (e.g., The Spider jumps out of the car before it explodes). Because of the episode structure the movie really feels like a series with an overarching main plot. The basic premise and some concepts are still intriguing: a criminal organization that tackles transportation systems to spread chaos. However, the structure also results in a sometimes incoherent narrative and a jumbled plot (e.g., the whole bank episode feels forced). And while from a production quality standpoint the action sequences are outdated, the car chases are still enjoyable – especially because of the thrilling soundtrack.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The production values of The Spider’s Web were, even at the time, very modest. This obviously results in several drawback regarding continuity (e.g., when and where Wentworth is able to stash his costume), technical errors (e.g., squeaking tires on dirt roads), stunt work and fight choreography, and character performances (e.g., some side actors, like the gas station manager, are mediocre at best). Apart from these more technical aspects, the plot is not well-constructed. The backstory of Wentworth is never revealed, although it is frequently hinted at, many moments are rather clichéd (e.g., some cars instantly explode when going off the road), inconsistent pacing that jumps back and forth between different sceneries without proper explanation (e.g., the frantic ride around town in episode 7), and many redundant moments (e.g., the tricks of The Octopus, like electrically charged doors and deadly gas bombs). All in all, the series doesn’t manage to use its structure well enough, to create a coherent story with intriguing characters.

SIDENOTE

In the 1930s movie serials were a huge success and companies like Republic, Universal, and Columbia were quickly producing as much as possible. Movie serials were basically series created for local cinemas. The serials were released weekly and often featured a short introduction of the main characters, information about the previous episodes, and cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Inspirations were drawn from popular material, like pulp fiction (e.g., The Spider’s Web, Deadwood Dick [1940]), comic books (e.g., Superman [1948], Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], The Phantom [1943]), radio shows (e.g., The Shadow [1940]), and earlier movies (e.g., White Eagle [1941], The Green Archer [1940]), which is why Columbia was very successful. All in all, 57 movie serials were produced by Columbia between 1937 (Jungle Menace) and 1956 (Blazing the Overland Trial). Much like other movies from that era (e.g., the anti-Japan sentiment in Batman and Robin [1943]), there are racial stereotypes to be found (e.g., Wentworth’s joke about Chinese airport workers or that the Indian sidekick is actually played by a Canadian with make-up). Also, Wentworth’s fiancée is poorly written and the character is mostly there for telling Wentworth that his missions are dangerous or for being rescued from kidnappers – only in the later episodes is she slightly more proactive. These stereotypes should at least be addressed, when discussing this serial.

THE VERDICT

The Spider’s Web is an action movie serial about Richard Wentworth, a rich criminologist, who fights crime as the masked vigilante The Spider. In 15 episodes, Wentworth’s fight against the criminal mastermind The Octopus is shown, who plans attacks on the country’s transportation systems to gain control over the most important industries. While the basic premise is intriguing and some action sequences are still enjoyable, the movie’s entertainment value is largely due to nostalgic reasons. By modern standards, there are many drawbacks, like the jumbled narrative, the redundant cliffhangers, and the poor performances of side characters. Considering its runtime of about 5 hours, the movie serial never quite accomplishes to tell a coherent story with genuinely interesting characters – although some episodes are fun to watch.

Overall 4/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The chronological order of the episodes are: Night of Terror, Death Below, High Voltage, Surrender or Die, Shoot to Kill, Sealed Lips, Shadows of the Night, While the City Sleeps, Doomed, Flaming Danger, The Road to Peril, The Spider Falls, The Man Hunt, The Double Cross, The Octopus Unmasked.

 – The serial was one of the first serials to be released by Columbia and extremely successful in 1938. Its success spawned the 1941 sequel (although only Warren Hull and Kenne Duncan reprised their roles) and reissues of the series in 1947.

– The character was a main inspiration for Stan Lee in creating Spider Man, alongside with Steve Ditko. Like Spider Man years later, The Spider often uses his web line to escape danger and has a spider web-pattern costume – which was specifically created for the movie serial. Coincidentally, Spider Man also has an opponent named Octopus.

 – When compared to the pulp stories, the serial was heavily toned down in violence to meet the production codes. The original stories were often extremely violent, with villains slaughtering thousands of innocent people in their killings sprees. The Spider also generally killed his enemies, putting a spider stamp on their corpses.

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