Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

*. War is in the offing, and it’s interesting, from a historical point of view, to look at this movie and see how everyone knew where things were going even before Pearl Harbor. In any event, Charlie is stationed in Panama helping to protect the canal against sabotage by a spy named “Reiner” (or “Ryner” as it appears in the subtitles; I’m not sure if the film gives any indication how it’s to be spelled so I go for the more likely option).
*. Reiner’s identity is unknown, as is the matter of who they are working for (though the German-sounding name is a big hint). The reason they can’t be identified is because the man sent to Panama to give Charlie a heads-up is killed by a poisoned cigarette. Finding Reiner is then what drives the plot, with the usual cast of suspicious types to choose from and the bumbling of Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) being of little assistance.
*. Though it’s the usual formula, and you’ll guess who Reiner is by keeping that formula in mind, there were a few noteworthy things about this one.
*. In the first place, hats off to the stunt man doubling for Manolo who jumped from that balcony. I’ve mentioned before about how much attention spectacular stunts get, when it’s really the more obvious things, like jumping from any kind of height onto a hard surface, that I find most impressive. Like Cornel Wilde dropping from one level of the waterfall to another in The Naked Prey, or the man jumping out of the plane onto the tarmac in Bullitt. I like how the commentaries for both those movies point out just how impressive those jumps were. Well, the jump from the balcony here is just as eye-popping. I really don’t know how he managed to get up after that.
*. Another thing I’d credit this one with is the villain, who is more interesting than usual. Now that’s really not saying much because almost all of the villains in these movies are instantly forgettable. Indeed, I can’t think of any off the top of my head except for Cesar Romero in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (remember that Bela Lugosi in The Black Camel and Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera were not the principal villains).
*. Finally, it seems as though Sidney Toler was starting to relax a bit into the role of Charlie Chan. He’s still pretty robotic, but there are moments, like the sly look he gives Jimmy when he ribs him about a dangerous older woman, where he shows more of a human side.
*. So not a bad entry in this series, with some added historical interest. It was neat watching an aircraft carrier entering into the locks and realizing that war was on the way and that these ships would soon be seeing action. I wonder what aircraft carrier that was and what its story was. Otherwise, though the series was now in full gear, Charlie’s time, at least at Fox, was running out.

12 thoughts on “Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Charlie’s cover in Panama is a guy selling hats. Including Panama hats.

      The movie’s theme music is Van Halen’s Panama.

      One of the above statements is true.

    1. Alex Good

      No, Charlie was still going strong at the end of the Fox run. Then Monogram picked him up and there was no real change (Toler even stayed in the role). He’s sort of like Sherlock Holmes in that he just keeps going. I don’t think he ever dies.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        You know, I’m not sure if there have been any Charlie Chan movies in the 21st century. The most recent according to Wikipedia is Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (with Peter Ustinov playing Chan!). You’d think the time is right to revive the character with an Asian actor, playing someone closer to the real-life detective he was based on.

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