City in Darkness (1939)

*. Coming after Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, widely regarded as the best of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies, City in Darkness has to register as a big disappointment.
*. It’s a mess. I found the plot impossible to follow. Victor Sen Yung’s Jimmy Chan is missing, replaced by veteran series hand Harold Huber, who this time is playing the enthusiastic but bumbling godson of the Paris police chief. An indispensable figure in a Charlie Chan movie, it seems.
*. The setting is Paris on the eve of the Second World War, specifically during the days of the political crisis brought on by Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. This context is, in turn, the only thing that makes the movie of any interest today.
*. An opening newsreel outlining rising tensions in Europe sets the scene. Paris is on high alert, having already put in place blackout precautions (giving the film its title, as well as a plot point near the end). I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but I think the bad guys are smuggling weapons to the enemy. Or something. Which in turn means that killing them isn’t really a crime.
*. The twist here is that, in John Cork’s words, this is “a World War Two propaganda film before World War Two had broken out.” The movie was made before fighting started, though it only opened in November 1939, just after Germany invaded Poland. This makes the final lines in the movie prophetic, as everyone celebrates the parties getting together at Munich to discuss peace in our time and Charlie isn’t buying any part of it.
*. Germans weren’t quite the enemy yet in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, but there were plenty of misgivings on display in that film. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t start fighting Nazis until 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. So give Charlie some points for being quicker off the mark. Unfortunately, such a footnote is all this movie amounts to now.

10 thoughts on “City in Darkness (1939)

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