Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Black Widow (1947) – Chapter 11: Death Dials a Number


Serial Saturdays returns this week with an installment from The Black Widow whose title sounds like it was cribbed from an old-time radio drama (“Today’s thrilling Shadow adventure: ‘Death Dials a Number’!”).  We know, of course, that despite our fervent hopes and dreams, bossy author-amateur criminologist Steven Colt and his automobile were not sucked into the raging torrent stock footage that concluded the last episode (seriously—that water moves like there’s been recent flooding), but instead our hero leaps out of the car at the last minute in true Hal Duncan style (“Hanh?!!”).

Chapter 11 finds Steve conversing with Professor Henry Weston (Sam Flint), who’s been stashed away in an undisclosed location to keep him out of the evil clutches of Sombra, the Black Widow (Carol Forman), and her confederates in crime.  Weston reads aloud from the latest edition of The Daily Clarion—the newspaper, in the interest of full disclosure, that hired Colt to work the Widow case in the first place.


WESTON (reading): “Another strange chapter was written into the Black Widow mystery early yesterday afternoon…the woman, held by the police as The Black Widow, collapsed in her cell and was pronounced dead…” (Putting down the paper) That’s quite a yarn…what do you think of it?

“Sounds like the lamest of serial plots to me.”

STEVE: It’s hard to say…but I’m not convinced The Black Widow is dead…
WESTON: What do you mean?
STEVE: Is it possible for a person to take a drug that would make him appear dead for any length of time?  You know—no pulse or heart action?
WESTON: Yes…there are a few rare cataleptic drugs that would do that…

“Oh…and Flintstones Chewables.”  Weston wants to know why, and that’s when Steve produces the pieces of paper he found in the coffee cup that was on the floor of Sombra’s cell.

WESTON (having a whiff): Strange odor…that could contain a drug!
STEVE: Exactly…if we could analyze that paper, we might confirm my suspicions…
WESTON: What are we waiting for?


“After all—I am the science-making guy!”  After a dissolve, Weston is seen peering into a microscope, then flipping through a book as Steve looks on, contributing nothing.  The professor deduces that the paper has been coated with a made-up drug called “carbobenetrol.”

WESTON: …a rare drug…used in experimental medicine to induce a cataleptic state…developed by Dr. Z.V. Jaffa in 1942…

Ho ho!  The very same Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) working for Her Maliciousness!  To Colt, this cinches it—The Black Widow is back in business, baby, and in the ensuing conversation with Weston we learn a little about the Doc’s heinous background:

WESTON: …he was a brilliant organic chemist…during the war, he was convicted of illegal sale of hypnotic drug…while awaiting an appeal…in the federal jail…he died suddenly of a heart attack…

Coincidence?  Not on your test tube, my boy!  “It’s just a hunch,” muses Colt, “but I’m going to check with the authorities on this Jaffa character…”

Weston wishes him good luck, and with another dissolve we’re riding along in the new Coltmobile with Steve and the bane of his existence (and the woman he’ll probably marry), irritating gal reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lindley).


JOYCE: All right, Sherlock…so you’ve got a lead to someone who might know about a…Doctor Joshua that Weston told you about…
STEVE: The name is Jaffa
JOYCE: That’s what I said…

Normally I find Joyce about as funny as painful rectal itch—but there’s just something about the way Lindley delivered that line that made me laugh out loud.

STEVE: Well, anyway…he was a cellmate of a man named Fillmore Hagain…who now owns The Classic Book Shop…

The (always reliable) IMDb spells Fillmore’s last name as “Hagen”…but since serials historian Hans J. Wollstein spells it “Hagain” in his Black Widow chapter recap at allmovie.com, I’m going to assume he’s got access to material I do not and so I’ll follow his lead.  Steve and Joyce greet Hagain at his shop, and the bookstore owner is played by character veteran Stanley Price—yet another one of the many familiar faces you’ll come across in chapter plays and B-Westerns.  In fact, Price played Robert “Doc” Benson in G-Men Never Forget (1948), one of our previous Serial Saturdays presentations—but his main claim to cliffhanger fame was playing “The Phantom Ruler” in the 1950 cult serial The Invisible Menace (1950).  (I keep hearing rumblings in the home video world that Olive Films may release this one to DVD/Blu-ray soon—if this happens, I might have to snag a copy for future Saturdays consideration.  I do know that Price has a part in what will be the next chapter play to be tackled at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)—provided my Hamilton Book order gets here in time).


STEVE: I’m Steven Colt…
HAGAIN: The writer?
STEVE: That’s right…
HAGAIN: Oh, I’ve read many of your books, Mr. Colt…

“That’s not writing, that’s typing!

HAGAIN: Were you looking for something special?
STEVE: Yes, some confidential information…I’m doing some investigating on a Doctor Jaffa…he was your…roommate for a while…

You can’t say our boy isn’t tactful about Hagain’s prison record.  Hagain himself delicately references it when he follows up with “But there isn’t much I can tell you…you see, I never saw him before or after my…uh…detention.”

STEVE: Well, it’s my belief that Dr. Jaffa is still alive…and I think I can prove it with your help…
HAGAIN: My help?
STEVE: It’s very simple—all you have to do is put an ad in the personals column…

“Wanted: nubile young teen with milkmaid costume.  Must also provide own cow.”  With Joyce as stenographer, Steve dictates: “To Z.V.J.: Amazing prison disclosure…secret of living death manuscript for sale…write Hagain, Classic Book Shop…”

HAGAIN (after being handed the paper): But I don’t understand…
STEVE: Merely a device that may smoke out Dr. Jaffa…
HAGAIN: Oh, I see…
STEVE: Put it in all the local papers and call me if an answer comes through…

You do like to order people around, don’t you, son?  Steve and Joyce say their goodbyes, and the fact that the camera chooses to linger on Hagain after our heroic couple has exited the shop is a tip-off to the audience that the bookseller is up to no good.  Hagain walks over to a bookshelf, and pulls down a false book façade to reveal a radio transmitter (I thought this was kinda nifty)…which he uses to contact his old cellmate Jaffa.



HAGAIN: Steve Colt was just here…
JAFFA: Colt?  What did he want?
HAGAIN: He suspects you’re alive…he wants me to put an ad in the papers to see whether you’ll bite…
SOMBRA (entering the room and standing over Jaffa): Hagain…I want you to come over here…at once
HAGAIN: Okay…

By the way—I don’t know why Sombra is always lounging around her hideout clad only in a bathrobe but I imagine if your job involves little more than ordering subordinates around you can enjoy that luxury.  Speaking of which, let’s hear from her pet thug Nick Ward (Anthony Warde):

WARD: Sombra—that mug Colt has got to be rubbed out
SOMBRA: You put it so crudely

“Well, then—how about this…please permit me the pleasure of removing him from this realm and sending him straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.”

JAFFA: But quite clearly…it’s our lives or his…Steve Colt is the one person standing in the way of our getting the atomic rocket…
WARD: And like you said—without it, Hitomu can’t work out his plans to become Number One Man of the World!
SOMBRA: An astute observation, Ward…but before we can take action, everything must first be arranged with Hagain…

We fade out, and then back in again as Steve and Joyce return to the Classic Book Shop.

STEVE: Pretty quick answer!
HAGAIN: Yes—I have it here in my desk… (He walks over to the desk and pulls out a piece of paper) And only two days after I placed the ad!
STEVE (reading): “Understand your offer and will be pleased to talk business with you…34 Chestnut Lane today at three…Z.V.J….that’s Jaffa, all right!
DORIS: Oh, it worked!

Steve shakes congratulatory hands with Hagain as he and Joyce scatter, with Joyce picking up a book as they depart (“Hey…you gonna pay for that?”).  The reason for her petty larceny becomes clear in a few: Hagain contacts Jaffa again by bookshelf transmitter to let him know Colt has taken the bait, and when he retires to his desk for a little light reading he gets a return visit from Steve…who informs him that Joyce took the wrong book by mistake, and the reason why:


The old concealed-tape-recorder-in-the-book-trick…and you fell for it!  Which signals that it’s time for the contractual Republic Fist Fight™, made more amusing this time by the fact that the stuntman doing the work of Hagain is clearly noticeable (he has the wrong hair color, for one thing).

Also: the stuntman has lost his permanent wave.
A representative of the constabulary has arrived just as Steve has completed administering Hagain’s beatdown, and like the officious little prick we know and love commands John Law to “take him down to headquarters.”  Outside the book shop, Joyce wants to know why Steve suspected Hagain wasn’t on the up-and-up:

STEVE: You remember the first time I talked to him he said he never saw Jaffa before or after he got out of jail?
JOYCE: So?
STEVE: How could he see him after he got out if he supposedly died in jail?
JOYCE: Now why didn’t I think of that?

“Because you’re a girl, that’s why.”  No, I’m going to have to go with Joycie on this one—there’s nothing dishonest about saying you never saw somebody after they died if they died (and Hagain knew of Jaffa’s heart attack, because Colt as much told him).  The screenwriters kind of fell down here; it would have made more sense if Steve had said “Well, when I didn’t see his personals ad in The Clarion I suspected something was up.”  Or to shorthand it: “The guy was a convicted felon, so I profiled him.  Deal with it.”

This matters precious little in the long run, because a stock shot of the residence at 34 Chestnut Lane…


…reveals a house used in many a Republic serial, and you can bet the ranch, your car and the money you squirreled away for the kids’ further education that this sumbitch is going to be blown to smithereernies before this chapter is finis.  Let’s set the stage for this dwelling to be blowed up real good—we find Ward packing the joint with several boxes clearly marked “explosives,” then he telephones Sombra to dial him back at his number…


…which sets off a spark in the wires, and that presumably will activate said explosives once Ward hooks it up.  He informs Sombra that he’ll contact her when Colt gets there, and with a dissolve and a short scene of an approaching car, Steve and Joyce arrive at their destination.

STEVE: I’ll case the house first…you keep your bright eyes open back here…if it looks like there might be trouble, just blow the horn…
JOYCE: All right, but…I don’t like it…

“Now…which one is the horn again?”  Steve approaches the house, and he’s being watched by Ward from a glen a bit further away.  When Nick closes his car door after entering the vehicle to contact Sombra, there’s a glint reflected off the sun that attracts Joyce’s attention…and so she decides to mosey over and investigate:

Yes, some idiot gave Joyce a gun.  What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?  As it turns out, plenty—while she gets the drop on Nick, eventually he overpowers her as he’s getting out of the car.  Nick informs Sombra by radio that Colt is in the house, and he snarls to Joyce:  “You got here just in time to see your boyfriend blown all over the countryside!”

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