Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

*. A Charlie Chan movie with a different feel to it. Not because many of the formula elements are missing. There’s no Keye Luke, his place as sidekick taken by a bumbling butler (Herbert Mundin), but otherwise it goes pretty much according to script. There’s the use of science (chemistry, geometry, physics), a trap laid to catch the killer (so obvious by now that you’ll see it coming long in advance), and the gathering of suspects in a drawing room at the end to reveal whodunit. There are even a couple of Chan’s fortune-cookie aphorisms (thought not as many, or as imaginative, as usual). But it’s different this time.
*. I think this is mainly down to a different genre inflection. This is a less light-hearted film, taking its lead more from the horror genre. Its main setting, for example, is an old dark house that is, if not haunted, inhabited by a glove-wearing, knife-throwing killer working from “a regular honeycomb of passages that start everywhere and end nowhere.”
*. More to the point, this part of the film is very effectively done. The trick of the gloved hand at the window disappearing is great, and the musical cue playing beneath that scene is surprising in its modernity. Also quite chilling is the reveal of the ghostly face at the séance and the glimpse in the mirror of the gun pointing at Charlie.
*. You probably wouldn’t expect a Chan movie to look this good, but it was shot by Rudolph Maté, who would not often work on a movie like this. He’d go on to get five Oscar nominations in five consecutive years, one for Foreign Correspondent. He also directed D.O.A. (1949). Obviously this was more of an assembly-line product, but you can still tell it was made by someone who knew what he was doing.
*. As good an entry as it is, I don’t think it rates with many as a favourite. It just seems less Chan-like. I also had trouble sorting out the family relations, and the opening scene exploring the wreck seemed completely superfluous, as though they were either looking to pad out the running time or had some underwater footage lying around that they wanted to use.
*. Everyone is a suspect since, as one of the talking heads in the accompanying featurette puts it, “the detective story is founded on the principle of universal suspicion.” Alas, the killer turns out to be the least interesting of the lot. By the time he’s revealed though, we’ve had our fun.

17 thoughts on “Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t give out five-star ratings like candies around here. There have probably only been around ten five-star movies ever made. This wasn’t one of them.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        It almost seems unfair to pick on him. But I told him he could just do the beatboxing in the background. What’s a sidekick for anyway?

      2. Over-The-Shoulder

        Annoying thing about sidekicks – got to take their feelings into account and all. Ugh. Beatboxing sounds like his limit. Maybe he could spin the records as well, y’know what I mean?

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, could put him on the turntable, see what he can do. I’m all for giving people every chance to succeed, at something.

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