Tuesday, November 23, 2010


ad mat for theatrical release, January 1938

Imagine it is Saturday night, March 21, 1959. You live in northwest-central Ohio in a home with a decent television antenna so that you can pick up Channel 6 (WTVN, Columbus), Channel 10 (WBNS, Columbus) and Channel 11 (WTOL, Toledo). You are in the mood for a late-night thriller-chiller movie, so you check the listings:

Lima [OH] News, March 21, 1959

At midnight, Channel 10’s “Mystery Theater” gives you something called STRANGE TRIANGLE (or does this start at 12:30? The listing is a little confusing); at 12:15, Channel 11’s “Shock Theater” has THE HOUSE OF DRACULA, and Channel 6’s “Shock Theater” has THE SPY RING at 12:30. There are no synopses here in the newspaper, there are no books that provide you with a description of these movies, and there is no IMDb to check on the internet; because it’s 1959, you can’t record one broadcast while watching the other, so you need to either choose one or flick back and forth (on a rotary tuner ---no remote control) between the three. Because you liked “I Was a Communist for the FBI” on the radio (1952-53) and watched the “I Led Three Lives” TV series (1953-56), you choose THE SPY RING.

Two officers from the US Calvary are in Washington DC developing the CQ, an experimental machine gun with a special firing mechanism (nicknamed “the weenie,” believe it or not!) that would increase the weapon's accuracy and efficiency (I guess?) enough to “revolutionize anti-aircraft defense.”

inspecting machine-gunned mannequins at the US Army proving grounds

the top-secret weenie

our hero

When one of the officers is killed by a free-lance spy who is after the CQ, the other Calvary captain, Todd “Dude” Hayden (William Hall, whose beefy face and toothy smile remind me of a young Ernest Borgnine) is assigned by Military Intelligence to complete the research and bust the espionage organization. He travels back to his regiment in Monterey to continue work on the invention, to spy-hunt, and to romance Elaine Burdette (Jane Wyman), his colonel’s daughter. And wouldn’t you know it? Hayden’s challenger for Elaine’s affections, Frank Denton (Leon Ames), turns out to be a key operative in the spy-for-hire organization and his #1 rival in the big polo championship tournament.

Oh yes, I said “polo"--- that sport where teams of people ride around on horses and hit a ball with a long-handled mallet. When I began this SHOCK! / Son of SHOCK! Viewing Project, I looked forward to blogging about ideas and images that I hadn’t encountered before, but I never expected to find myself writing about polo. And there is (what I suppose is) an exciting polo match in the second half of the picture, but I was too stunned by the fact that I was watching polo in a SHOCK! film to really appreciate it.

Director Joseph H. Lewis--- whose work in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), GUN CRAZY (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955) intrigues me every time I see it ---has a few interesting camera-moves and set-ups here. Lewis shoots through walls, over car hoods, under horses' bellies, behind fireplaces, and catches reflections in mirrors and glasses of champagne; in a private moment between Hayden and Elaine, the camera moves voyeuristically through tree branches like those FRIDAY THE 13TH p.o.v. shots. Lewis pulls off a good nighttime car chase in middle of the movie that I think might be the highlight for thrill-hungry viewers. (Incidentally, the spy ring’s chauffeur who is captured and interrogated by Hayden is played by Paul Sutton, who was the voice of Canadian Mountie Sergeant William Preston on Mutual’s "Challenge of the Yukon" radio show in the early 1950s; at the time that THE SPY RING appeared on SHOCK!, Sutton had twice failed to win his campaign for US Congress as a Democrat from Michigan.)

two years before marrying Ronald Reagan & fifty years before "Falcon Crest"

I am speculating that THE SPY RING went out for TV syndication because of the presence of Jane Wyman. When the film was released originally in 1938, William Hall was given top billing (Béla Lugosi fans might recognize Hall for his bit-part as hood in POSTAL INSPECTOR; he also show's up very briefly in Universal's MAN MADE MONSTER, a SHOCK! title). But Hall never really did much lead-acting after THE SPY RING. Jane Wyman, however, is a different story.

Wyman's character in THE SPY RING is the ingénue (Esther Ralston's role as the icy spymaster Jean Bruce is a much juicier). Among other bits of fluff, she fatuously flirts with Denton to gain the attentions of Hayden and predictably ends up as a pouty hostage of the spy ring. In short, Wyman's work here is lightweight, but she was such a huge star in the 1940s and 1950s that she gets top-billing in almost every TV listing for THE SPY RING that I saw in newspapers from 1957 and 1962; the Screen Gems SHOCK! booklet's entry for THE SPY RING centers around Wyman (for example: "starring in the picture is Jane Wyman and her co-star is William Hall") and it provides stations with a quick biography crafted to be used as a "Shock Theater" plug (the same year SHOCK! hit the airwaves, she was nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theater"). Because of Wyman's presence in the movie, THE SPY RING got a lot of play at various times throughout the day on television, in the late '50s and early '60s, appearing far more as an afternoon feature than on late-night chiller horror theater showcases.

In retrospect, I think that you should’ve stuck with Channel 10 or 11 on that night in March 1959. STRANGE TRIANGLE, it turns out, is a 1946 B-movie crime melodrama from Fox involving bank embezzling, blackmail, and Signe Hasso as the femme fatale... after seeing the trailer on YouTube, it certainly seems like it was a perverse enough noir-lite to catch one's attention in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, THE HOUSE OF DRACULA, a Son of SHOCK! title from 1945, offered a heaping helping of monsters. In comparison, THE SPY RING is a forgettable disappointment as a "Shock Theater" title.

NEXT: "The hollow ringing of a great bell always precedes murder on SHOCK's full-length feature THE SECRET OF THE CHATEAU, telecast on this channel!"


Mirek said...

That's very funny about the weenie. It does, indeed, look like one.

The Creeping Bride said...

The other comment that characters make about the device is how much it looks like a cheap cigar, and its resemblance to a cigar actually fakes out the spies on two occasions during the course of the movie.

kochillt said...

THE SPY RING looked like a promising affair until the hero ferrets out the villains by playing polo (I couldn't believe it either!) It never appeared on CHILLER THEATER, and I can just imagine the near riot that might have ensued! The only kind word I can offer, apart from the fetching teenage Jane Wyman, is that it's better than 1941's A DANGEROUS GAME. Look for Leon Ames (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE), Egon Brecher (THE BLACK CAT, WEREWOLF OF LONDON), and big, burly Glenn Strange, as a silent thug called 'The Champ.'