Harry Houdini attempted to parlay his legendary career as an illusionist into a film career and this was his final effort. (He also directs.) Playing the titular secret service agent, Houdini must track down some counterfeiters and rescue a young lady tangled in their web. Par for the pulp course.
I could tell you the plot but then I’d have to kill you.
Most celebrities from the turn of the century have been forgotten for decades but Harry Houdini is as famous as ever. Maybe it is the fact that he was a skilled stage magician, maybe it’s because of his early death, perhaps we just like the sound of his name. For whatever reason, Houdini remains synonymous with magic, mystery and escape.
Houdini himself understood the power of his celebrity and in the 1910s and 1920s, he tried to parlay his fame into film stardom. His movies were not just recordings of his magic performances, they were serials and features in the pulp tradition. His most famous work is probably The Master Mystery—everyone loves goofy robots—but today we will be focusing on his final feature film.
When reviewing a film from a celebrity, there is a question of how to go about it. I am taking for granted that most readers have a passing familiarity with Houdini and will not delve heavily into his life. Instead, I will discuss how Haldane of the Secret Service measures up as silent era entertainment and whether it still holds charm for modern viewers.
The story does not start out promisingly. The nation of China, we are informed via intertitle, is the mother of necromancy behind her yellow veil. (I would like to take a moment to apologize to China.) Edward Ormsby (William Humphrey) is a former employee of the American consulate who seems to be up to something.
Meanwhile, the Secret Service has some trouble on its hands. It seems that a ring of counterfeiters is running circles around the US government and they have even managed to murder an agent. That agent was Silent Saunders Haldane, father of Heath Haldane (Harry Houdini). Naturally, Haldane hopes to catch the miscreants responsible for his father’s death and, as a result, he stumbles across Adele Ormsby (Gladys Leslie), the ward of our Mr. Ormsby. She is clearly caught up in something very bad but she won’t explain what it is and she has a habit of slipping away before Haldane can press for details.
The mysterious Dr. Yu seems to be planning something big but he remains in the shadows. By following Adele, Haldane ends up following the gang to London. A Chinese operative, Ah Ling (Charles Fang), is also working the case, hoping to reclaim a sacred statue stolen by Ormsby. The Chinese agent is not in the film for long but it is nice to see an Asian character portrayed as something besides a servant or a Fu Manchu-type villain. This doesn’t erase the other stereotypes in the film but it is a pleasant surprise.
(I wonder how the British government feels about an American and Chinese operative raising hell in their capital. But then again, considering how 007 will run roughshod over the jurisdiction of other nations in a few decades, perhaps we can view this as poetic justice.)
The main challenge facing our hero is a simple one: he is a complete idiot. Let’s examine the evidence. At one point, Adele gives Haldane a tip that leads him to a secret hideout of the gang of villains. While sneaking about to eavesdrop on their conversation, Haldane gives away his presence through his own clumsiness and he is dropped in the drink for his troubles. His reaction? Adele must have betrayed him! How else could he have been caught?
Angered by this, Haldane swims out to the boat that Adele is sailing on. However, he cannot follow her once she reaches her destination because he didn’t bring his passport. D’oh! I thought agents carried dozens and dozens of those things. I mean, he’s only investigating an international crime syndicate, what could he possibly need a passport for? (Good thing this guy wasn’t on presidential protection or Calvin Coolidge would be toast!)
And now we have the important question: how is Houdini? Well… Not all that great, I’m afraid. His acting seems limited to looking somewhat peeved and staring into the camera. And, frankly, Mr. Houdini seems a bit old for a role that really calls for more of a callow youth type performer. The mistakes Haldane makes would have been bad enough if the character had been twenty-five, they are intolerable at fifty.
Fans of his escape act will be disappointed that there is only one proper escape scene in the picture. Houdini is tied to a waterwheel and then it starts spinning and he has to free himself. Pretty good as pulp escapes go but not a major showstopper. In hindsight, Houdini’s decision to quit motion pictures and focus on his career as a stage magician was a wise one.
The rest of the cast is so-so, though I did rather like Gladys Leslie. She’s cute without being cloying and she seems to display more common sense than the ostensible hero of the picture. I particularly like the way she thwarts his attempt to search her bag by telling him it contains her underwear. Maybe the film should have been Ormsby of the Secret Service. Or Ormsby & Ah Ling: Super Spies.
In spite of all this, I did enjoy Haldane of the Secret Service. It has an old-fashioned pulp vibe that is unmistakable and while the story is lame, at least it is never boring. We get secret societies, our hero rushing around the world, undercover work in a monastery and a supervillain. It has the flavor of one of those Roger Moore James Bond films and I happen to like that particular flavor. (Admittedly, your mileage may vary in this regard but I strongly preferred Moore to Connery as a kid because he tended to smack his leading ladies less often and I enjoyed the fact that he had fun with what was, if we are honest, a very silly character.)
I don’t recommend Haldane of the Secret Service for everyone but serial and pulp devotees (me, me, me!) should find plenty to love. However, due to the considerable racist content, your mileage may vary.
Where can I see it?
The version I saw is part of Kino Lorber’s excellent Houdini: The Movie Star box set. Unfortunately, the set is out of print and the second-hand dealers are asking outrageous sums for it. There is also a single disc edition released by Alpha but considering the company’s poor reputation, caveat emptor.