Daily Archives: March 30, 2022

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)

*. The set-up to The Mystery of Mr. Wong seemed awfully familiar to me. At a swank party a brief amateur drama is presented after a round of charades. The play has a man being shot at the end, but after the applause has settled the victim doesn’t get up because he’s been shot for real!
*. I was sure that the fake killing that turns out to be real had been done before. I seem to remember it popping up in some old novels, like Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer (1935). The most likely source here though was a 1931 movie called Murder at Midnight, which I hadn’t seen. So not a new idea, but still a good one. There’s a murder committed in front of a room full of witnesses and nobody knows whodunit. Unfortunately for the murderer. Mr. Wong was in attendance.
*. Mr. Wong was a transparent attempt to piggyback on the Charlie Chan franchise, though given the low quality of many of the Chan efforts the Wong films don’t fall short of the original. That’s particularly the case here, as Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong is superior to anything Sidney Toler was doing at the time and in this outing we don’t get bogged down with any of the crazy murder methods that became a kind of running joke in the later Chans. This latter point is all the more surprising, as the first Mr. Wong movie had one of the craziest killer scenarios ever. But in this one, perhaps because they were borrowing from an earlier, simpler source, they dialed that part down.
*. The plot is also relatively straightforward. Somebody gets killed and a rare sapphire, the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, is stolen. There are the usual upper-class suspects assembled — even a Russian named Strogonoff, which you’ll be shocked to learn is actually an alias — but at least I could keep most of them straight. The Asian supporting players are presented respectfully and there’s none of the minstrel-show comic relief that the Chan series adopted.
*. In short, they kept most of what works in the Chan movies (like the trap set for the killer at the end, and a ballistics scene for the proto-CSI crowd) and got rid of a lot that doesn’t. The production is pretty barebones, but some interesting camera angles are thrown in. And for once the killer has a comprehensible motivation. So they ended up with a not-bad old-school mystery that’s maybe a notch above the Chan movies coming out around this time. But does that make it worth watching? No.