Monday, October 31, 2011

Federal Operator 99 (Republic, 1945)

Serial pulchritude: villainous Lorna Gray and heroine Helen Talbot

In Federal Operator 99, the eponymous federal agent Jerry Blake (Marten Lamont) goes up against suave master criminal Jim Belmont (George J. Lewis) and his chief minions, the ultra glamorous Rita Parker (Lorna Gray), bored acting Morton (LeRoy Mason), and drawling Matt Farrell (Hal Taliaferro). Although each of his capers is foiled by the feds, Belmont blithely conjures up one after the other until he is finally captured at his lair in an old abandoned theater.

Truth be told, the opening and closing sequences are the best part of this noir serial from Republic. On his way by train to stand trial on the West Coast (the city is given as “Glenview” but the locality is obviously Los Angeles), Jim Belmont is freed by chief henchman Matt Farrell, who parachutes onto the top of the speeding conveyance and smashes his way to the observation deck where the handcuffed Belmont and federal agent Tom Jeffries (Kernan Cripps) are enjoying a radio concert. The start of the concert was actually Belmont's signal for pilot Clay (Duke Green) to descend and for Farrell to quickly dispatch Jeffries and free his boss. As original as the opening chapter, the conclusion of the serial has Belmont and Federal Agent Jerry Blake locked in mortal combat on a catwalk high above an abandoned theater, a tour-de-force by veteran director Spencer Gordon Bennet and the studio stuntmen.

Unlike most sound serials, Federal Operator 99 is not a cohesive narrative with a single "wienie," serial-writer slang for what Alfred Hitchcock termed a "macguffin," but a succession of attempts by Belmont to trick the Feds. Each chapter is another case, beginning with the stolen "jools" and culminating with the theft of a priceless Stradivarius. And each chapter features the debonair master criminal playing Beethoven's 5th in his luxurious lair, presumably much to the irritation of the paying public if, oddly enough, not his captive audience on screen, Rita, Morton and Matt. No one thinks (or dares?) to suggest that he perhaps might perform another piece of classical music and Belmont is free to plow away in chapter after chapter. Yet despite the exhaustive use of Beethoven, Jim Belmont remains one of Republic's more satisfying villains, a dapper gangster type complete with pencil mustache and supercilious airs, a refreshing change, if you will, from Roy Barcroft's more in-your-face villainy. Belmont seems the kind of chap that may have given 007 a run for his money; then again, maybe not considering that this particular master villain meets his Waterloo in the person of the utterly bland Jerry Blake, a wartime-shortage hero if ever there was one. Along with such surefire signs of economy as plenty of stock-footage, Marten Lamont remains Federal Operator’s chief liability but Lewis, Hal Taliaferro, Lynda Gray (later to bill herself Adrian Booth), and the stuntmen almost make up for the shortcomings, and Federal Operator 99 retains many devotees among ardent serial fans.

About the production

Although Wallace Grissell earned a co-director credit on Federal Operator 99, according to Spencer Bennet he never filmed a single scene. "I believe
he was ill at the time," Bennet told writer Francis M. Nevins. "The poor fellow was subject to attacks of epilepsy which hurt his career immensely."

A Britisher, from Suffolk, England, Marten Lamont (born 1911; pictured right) was educated in Ghent, Belgium and University of California. A writer and radio producer in California, and a true Renaissance man, Lamont wrote for Time and was an editor of Arts and Architecture Magazine prior to making his screen debut as Errol Flynn’s stand-in in Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He also stood in for Cary Grant on occasion, played small roles elsewhere and even did a stint as a flying instructor for the RAF.

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