Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)‘Silent Saunders, the slickest bull that ever caught our tail, has been croaked.’

An American special agent is seeking to avenge his father’s murder by a criminal gang, when he accidentally comes into possession of some forged bank notes when trying to rescue a damsel in distress. This gives him a line on a counterfeiting ring, who are planning to take their operation to a global level…

Harry Houdini was a legend in his own time; a magician, performer and escapologist who vowed the world with his stage performances and public, death-defying feats. He was also a man ahead of his time; diversifying into other media, such as film and printed fiction. Having said that, the magazine stories that appeared under his name, and purported to detail his real-life adventures, were actually ghost-written, one by H P Lovecraft! His movie career was limited to one movie serial and four features, the last of which was this crime thriller. Houdini financed his own films and chose to step behind the camera as director for this one.

After his debut performance in serial ‘The Master Mystery’ (1918), Houdini always appeared as a character with his own initials and here he’s treasury agent Heath Haldane, tangling with a bunch of toughs controlled by a shadowy criminal mastermind. At first, it almost seems as we are in for an ‘old dark house’ murder mystery after Houdini follows Gladys Leslie home to confront her with her bag filled with forged currency. Unfortunately, he spends far more time staring into her undeniably appealing eyes and less at the evidence and has it stolen from under his feet. Then a man in the next room is shot. It’s hardly a stellar piece of work from this representative of the U.S. Government.

But just when we think we’re stuck between these musty four walls for the duration, everyone is off on a European cruise with Houdini gate-crashing the party after being thrown off a quay. Unfortunately, his passport is not in order when they arrive in Glasgow (he hasn’t got one!) and Leslie, her father and his entourage disappear to London via Hull (a city not particularly known for frequent appearances in the movie world!) The trail eventually leads to a French monastery but all this globe-trotting leaves little impression.

Yes, the drama is delivered efficiently enough, but the story is so pedestrian and uninspiring that the news that it was the great escapologist’s last film hardly comes as a shock. His films did not make money and apparently he found the whole process terribly dull. Sadly, that’s also a feeling likely to be shared by an audience watching this turgid bore. At least Houdini’s previous films had ambition and scope, even if they were not embraced by a public who seemed unwilling to accept him on the silver screen. On the plus side, as a director, he does elicit surprisingly naturalistic performances ‘ from his cast given the era that the film was made, something that matched his own approach to acting for the camera.

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)

It was just another day in the office for Harry…

Perhaps in an effort to leave his more familiar persona behind, Houdini gives himself no ‘great escapes’ to perform, although he is tied to a millwheel at the film’s climax. Its collapse into the river is only a brief sequence, but easily the film’s most impressive moment. However, Houdini is only seen in longshots and it emerged in later years that he wasn’t above using a stuntman on occasion.

 

During his second film ‘The Grim Game’ (1917) (thought lost for almost 100 years!), there was a plane collision after a mid-air stunt went wrong, and shots of Houdini hanging from one of the aircraft appeared prominently in the international press. Only it wasn’t actually him! There’s no evidence that he used a double here, but it’s always a possibility.

Those of you checking out Houdini’s filmography may be intrigued by the listing of a sixth film and a second directorial credit in ‘The Soul of Bronze’ (1923). This is not an undiscovered Houdini project, however, but French film ’L’ame Du Bronze’ (1917), which he bought and intended to distribute in the U.S. through his film company with translated intertitles.

This film is a damp and dreary end to a sadly undistinguished film career.

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