*. There are two, and only two, things worth remarking about The Chinese Ring.
*. First, after Sidney Toler barely made it through the filming of The Trap and died soon after, this marks the debut of Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. Winters was an American of German descent (born Roland Winternitz) who was no great shakes as an actor. His turn as Charlie Chan is what’s best known for today, which tells you something. He also bears no resemblance whatsoever to an Asian man.
*. His nose gives the game away. As noted by author Yunte Huang, Winters’s “tall nose simply could not be made to look Chinese.” One gets the sense Monogram wasn’t even trying, as they didn’t bother much in the way of make-up either, or get Winters to speak with much of an accent.
*. In short, despite the low bar set by Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, who did at least grow on me a bit, Winters marks another big step down. But he would go on to star as Chan in five more films before Monogram finally threw in the towel.
*. Perhaps in the hope of providing audiences some continuity, Winters received back-up from Victor Sen Yung (who had previously played Jimmy Chan but who is now called Tommy), and Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown. Neither player is given much screen time though, which doesn’t help things.
*. The other point worth remarking has to do with another point of continuity, albeit not to the Chan franchise. The script here, by W. Scott Darling. is basically the same as was used in Mr. Wong in Chinatown, which Darling had written eight years earlier. Only the names have changed, so that “Captain J” in Mr. Wong in Chinatown has been cleverly changed to “Captain K” here.
*. You know you’ve dragged the bottom of the barrel when you have to remake Mr. Wong movies. What’s worse is the fact that Mr. Wong in Chinatown is a much better movie. To take just a couple of examples: the feisty lady reporter in the Mr. Wong movies is played by Marjorie Reynolds, and she was great. Louise Currie has the role here and she’s instantly forgettable. Second: in the Mr. Wong movie a dwarf witness is killed and buried, which gives the villain away when he claims he is burying one of his dogs. In this movie the witness who is killed is a small child, which is distasteful.
*. In short, a lousy movie that gives ample evidence no one cared about this franchise anymore. Winters should have been one and done and an immediate replacement sought, but that would have required a level of interest Monogram couldn’t muster. So things would continue for another couple of years before the series would be put out of its misery.
*. An ending. Not the end of Charlie Chan on screen, but the last turn taken by Sidney Toler as the great Asian-American detective, and indeed Toler’s last screen appearance. He’d been diagnosed with intestinal cancer and was effectively dying on his feet through the last several Chan movies, apparently in such ill health he could sometimes barely walk or deliver his lines. So in addition to The Trap being a lousy movie, it’s sad too.
*. Efforts had been made to have Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) and Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) carry more of the load. This they do (Toler doesn’t even appear until 16 minutes in), but they do so in only the usual ways. Birmingham walks around scared to death at everything, including his own reflection in a mirror. while Jimmy hits on a pretty Chinese girl. But neither of them accomplish much.
*. This is one of the more disappointing things about the Chan movies in general. It’s not like they present a bunch of suspects and then build them up with distinct motivations while throwing in some red herrings along the way. Instead, none of the players are clearly distinguished and at the end Charlie usually just plays a hunch or sets a trap to catch the killer. You’re left with no clear idea of what was going on. The Trap (and I’m not sure what the title refers to) is better than most in this regard, as the killer does have a motive that at least makes sense, but it’s reveal also just feels dropped in at the end.
*. The story has a female troupe of . . . entertainers (singers? dancers? I wasn’t sure what they were) renting an oceanside property in Malibu, where a couple of them end up being garroted. One of the girls knows Jimmy Chan and this inadvertently gets Charlie on the case.
*. Just a sad conclusion to a series of films that were never very good to begin with. The mystery isn’t worth paying any attention to and the moments of comic relief all fall flat. They weren’t putting any effort into these at this point and it shows. But just because Toler was gone didn’t mean there they were going to stop. At least not quite yet.
*. Believe it or not, I was looking forward to this one.
*. Yes, by this point the Charlie Chan franchise was well and truly worn out. But Dark Alibi marked the return of director Phil Karlson, who I thought did good work on his previous Chan effort The Shanghai Cobra. Plus I was watching a colourized version, which I thought would make things a little easier.
*. Alas, even Karlson’s efforts, the slapdash colouring that churns like a lava lamp, and an interesting premise can’t save Dark Alibi.
*. I said the premise is interesting. What we have here is a gang of bank robbers forging the fingerprints of released convicts and leaving them (the prints) at the scene of the crime, thus framing the ex-cons and sending them back to the big house. The process of forging fingerprints is, however, a very complicated matter and even the scientists at the crime lab have a hard time figuring out how to do it. Which makes you wonder why the bank robbers are going through all this trouble. Like, why not just wear gloves and not leave any prints in the first place?
*. Charlie is, of course, on to their little scheme, noting that all the cons who have been framed came out of the same prison. From there he uncovers the whole plot, but not before several people get killed along the way just as a way of jolting the audience awake.
*. It’s some indication of just how little material they had here that the comedy routine we got in The Scarlet Clue between Mantan Moreland and his partner Ben Carter where they each finish off each other’s sentences is repeated three times in this film. It’s a good bit, but this is overkill.
*. Another sign of the lack of new ideas is how often we’re left with Tommy Chan and Benjamin Brown (Benson Fong and Moreland) just hanging out together. These moments were, however, the best parts of the movie. It was actually nice to see them laying back on the couch killing time, or playing rock-paper-scissors. And when they get in trouble and start calling out for Charlie (“Pop! Pop!” “Mr. Chan! Mr. Chan!”) it’s actually kind of sweet and funny.
*. But then Moreland is back jumping at his own shadow and Sidney Toler is sleepwalking through his role and the plot makes no sense and can’t be followed anyway so it’s all just a waste of time.
*. Probably doomed from the start. Ronald Colman was a fine actor, within his limits, but playing an actor playing Othello was not within those limits. He won an Academy Award for this movie but he’s hopelessly miscast. Pauline Kael: “Colman is not at his best, and the role of Othello is so far out of his range that he’s gentlemanly and dispassionate when he means to be fiery hot.” They had wanted Olivier, whose own Othello was odd enough but still worked. Colman was reluctant. He had never done Shakespeare and it shows. Not to mention that he just doesn’t have the requisite weight for the part of Othello, or for the passion killer Anthony John.
*. The casting isn’t the only odd fit. What we have here is a crime noir about the stage world. How do these two genres go together? Not comfortably.
*. The central conceit is that famous actor Anthony John has a problem over-identifying with the roles he plays. “The part begins to seep into your life . . . imagination becomes reality!” Tony is happy and fun to be with when performing in light comedies. As his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) explains, they were engaged while doing Oscar Wilde but broke up doing O’Neill and divorced doing Chekov. Since he’s now trying to get back together with her, she tries to talk him out of playing the Moor: “I know if we ever got mixed up in an Othello thing, it would be the end.”
*. Well, it’s actually worse than that. Playing Othello drives poor Tony mad with jealousy. This is where things get very silly. He ends up getting involved with a coarse waitress (Shelley Winters, with an “s” at the end of her name for the first time and playing a part that would come to define this stage of her career). He kills her in a fit of transference, giving her the “kiss of death” treatment from the play. But it’s not clear why he should kill Winters, since he’s obsessing over Brita having an affair with his pal Bill (Edmond O’Brien). We know this because his eyes start bulging out and he hears voices in his head chanting “Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill!” So . . . Winters must die. O’Brien then takes on the role of dogged detective, coming up with an elaborate (and ridiculous) scheme to prove Tony is a murderer.
*. It sounds crazy, and it is. The script is by the married team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and as Kael correctly points out it’s better suited for satire. Instead it’s played as a melodrama that is impossible to take seriously, with several moments that are unintentionally funny to liven up the hamminess.
*. This is all a long way of saying that it’s a movie that just hasn’t aged well. The noir elements don’t work as noir. There’s some effective lighting, but the killer is a kindly, sympathetic fellow, the “detective” isn’t likeable at all (we must suspect Bill “Friend”‘s game), and the police inspector is unbelievably obliging. Then, on the other hand, the theatre stuff is overwrought and clichéd, finally treating us with that old battle cry about how the show must go on. Together, the two generic strands don’t add up to anything more than their failed parts. Tony dies worrying that the audience would be calling for him to “die again.” I just wanted him to die once and make an end of it.
*. I’ve remarked before (many times) on how hard it is to follow the plots of the Charlie Chan mysteries. They are complicated, poorly explained, and cluttered with too many suspects who all look and sound the same. Even after Charlie’s quite abrupt wrap-ups it’s hard to be clear about what just happened.
*. I thought I’d really make an effort with Dangerous Money to understand what was going on. Mainly because the Monogram Chan movies are so bad anyway I wanted to find a way of staying interested.
*. It didn’t work. I’m really not sure what was happening. Charlie’s on a ship sailing to Samoa and meets a treasury agent who is on the trail of some counterfeiters. The agent tells Charlie that someone is trying to kill him. Someone tries to kill him but fails. Then they try again and succeed. So we have a murder investigation.
*. There’s the usual crowd of suspects. Even the innocent ones — innocent, that is, of murder — are up to no good. It’s all a muddle and by the end, as I say, I’d totally lost the thread. One doesn’t watch a Charlie Chan movie for the thrill of gathering clues and solving the mystery. Indeed, by this point in the series you may well wonder why one does watch a Charlie Chan movie.
*. For the aphorisms? They’ve run out of spirit and wit. “Good wife’s place should be at mate’s elbow in time of trouble.” Got it. “Kangaroo reach its destination by leaps and bounds.” Groan. “Hasty man could drink tea with fork.” Huh?
*. For the comic relief of Mantan Moreland? Well, he’s not here, having been replaced by Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown. Best is probably best known as playing the character of Sleep n’ Eat. He’s just a racist cliché here, trembling in fear at every sign of danger and given no funny lines. For example, he confuses “Jamaican” with “shoemaker.” I must be missing something but I can’t see what’s funny about that.
*. On the plus side, welcome back Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son Jimmy Chan. This is his first appearance in a Chan film since Castle in the Desert (1942), at the end of which he was heading off for military service. I guess he’s no longer in the army, but nothing is said about where he’s been the last four years, and there’s no mention made of Tommy Chan, who had been taking his place in the Monogram pictures up till now.
*. Speaking of the war, I wonder if the scientist’s line “I said that I’d return, and I’m returning” was meant as a nod to MacArthur’s famous speech about getting back to the Philippines. It seems forced, and Charlie smiles at it, so I suspect it was a joking reference.
*. At one point a thick wad of bills is pulled open to reveal only a bit of money on the outside and a bunch of newspaper strips on the inside. Jimmy calls this a Kansas City bankroll. I’d always heard this referred to as a Detroit roll. I looked it up and apparently both locations are used. Probably other cities lay claim to it as well.
*. A worthless film, poor even by the standards of the later days of this franchise. Toler really looks like he’s not even mailing it in. One of the villains is actually a man dressed as a woman. When captured and his disguise revealed one of the authorities exclaims “Why Mr. Chan, she’s a man!” To which the transvestite replies, “So what?” As comebacks go, that struck me as incongruously postmodern. But it’s answered with a belt to the chops that knocks him out, so we never get any clarification.
*. Or Charlie Chan, Still In the Secret Service, in Mexico City. Mexico being evoked only by a single opening stock-footage shot and the presence of Fortunio Bonanova as a Mexican police inspector who gets to be Charlie’s sidekick. As usual Charlie has Benson Fong as Tommy Chan with him too, but this time Mantan Moreland’s Birmingham Brown has been replaced by Willie Best as Birmingham’s cousin Chattanooga Brown.
*. I don’t know how skilled a comic actor Best, also known as Sleep n’ Eat, was. He is stuck here doing the usual shtick of chasing after girls and being afraid of pretty much everything that moves. “My hair is getting tired,” he says at one point to Tommy, who responds “Your hair?” “Yeah, because for the last ten minutes it’s been standing on end.” Har-har.
*. It’s the usual wartime Charlie Chan plot. A scientist who is working on a new kind of super-atomic bomb using a previously unknown 95th element is killed and his research notes have gone missing. A group of suspects are assembled who are barely differentiated at all. When the killer is finally exposed your reaction is likely to be “Who’s he?”
*. Also following the usual script, especially in these later Chan films, is the killer’s method. “One shot heard, two bullets fired, but not from a gun, how can that be?” That is a puzzler. Indeed, it’s complicated to the point of being nearly impossible to make sense of, and seems like the killer’s plan could hardly manage to go right. You see, there’s a gimcrack device containing exploding bullets that gets surreptitiously placed on the victim and which is then remotely triggered by a wall-mounted relay. Or something like that. I’m honestly not sure how it was supposed to work.
*. There’s nothing good to say about this one. It’s just a dull, confusing mess. I suppose if you’re looking for a highlight it might be Charlie dancing the rumba. He does not dance well, but it’s nearly all this movie has going for it.
*. I’ll confess that I went into The Shanghai Cobra with very low expectations. I’d enjoyed the previous Charlie Chan movie, The Scarlet Clue, but mainly because I was watching a restored and colourized print. The print I saw of The Shanghai Cobra was in a dismal state, with a blurry picture and a soundtrack filled with bubble-wrap popping sounds. This, I thought, was going to be painful.
*. The opening scene, however, actually looked like it was done with style. And style is not a word I have often employed in my notes on the Charlie Chan filmography. There are a couple of men in trenchcoats, a woman, a rainy street, a diner. It’s very noir and, allowing for the poor quality of the print, looked good. I made a note to check the name of the director because this all seemed a notch above the usual Chan fare.
*. As it turns out, the director was Phil Karlson and this was his first Chan movie. He’d only go on to do one other, Dark Alibi. The only other film by him I’ve seen is Kansas City Confidential, an underrated noir of the same period. So full credit to Phil for making it work, especially seeing as he had so little to work with.
*. The story here is only the usual war-time espionage guff about gangsters or spies or something like that trying to steal some radium from a bank vault. There is also a subplot which turns out to be a red herring involving some guy who crossed paths with Charlie years earlier when he was suspected of killing people with injections of cobra venom. Well, guess what? People at the bank are now dying of cobra venom.
*. If you think the cobra venom angle is ridiculous just wait. It gets worse. How do people get injected with the venom? Well, one way is that at this hole-in-the-wall diner there’s a new type of jukebox that has a camera in it, so when you put your coin in a female DJ in an office miles away can view you on a video screen. Why? Don’t know. I have no idea what the point of this is. If anything, I’d be less inclined to put a coin in a jukebox that was spying on me. Nor is it clear what sort of greater functionality such a remote camera system has for someone who just wants to listen to a particular song.
*. Anyway, here’s the thing: pushing the button on the jukebox triggers a needle that injects the victim with cobra venom, and in such a way that the victims don’t even realize they’ve been stuck. I’m not going to explain any more. It’s that stupid.
*. There’s not much to add. Mantan Moreland is back as Birmingham Brown but he seems tired of these shenanigans. Benson Fong actually appears to be getting more relaxed in the role of Tommy Chan. Karlson gives some of the sets, like the bank vault and a sewer, some atmosphere. But overall this is nothing special and the ridiculousness of the plot was a bit much even for this franchise.
*. Charlie Chan in colour!
*. Well, it’s a fudge. To be honest, I was so disappointed in the run of Monogram Charlie Chan movies that by the time I came to The Scarlet Clue I was thrilled to find a colourized version that I could watch online (the film had fallen into the public domain). This isn’t to say that I’m a fan of colourization, because I’m not, but I was looking forward to anything that would lighten up what had become a menu of grim fare indeed.
*. The colourization process seems to be a borderline adequate job. But these movies didn’t give much to work with (Monogram sets and costumes are drab and spare), and noir lighting in general is a poor fit for colour anyway. The opening scene, with a man being trailed on a foggy, dockside street at night, shifts in tonal values like a cuttlefish stalking a crab.
*. Still, the colour here cheered me up. I have no idea what the story was about, but it had Charlie (Sidney Toler) along with Number Three Son Tommy and his usual Monogram sidekick Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) investigating a case of spies trying to steal some radar technology from a company that shares a building with a television and radio station.
*. Does that make a lot of sense? Don’t let that bother you. If you do then you’ll really be flummoxed by the murder method. Are you ready? Gelatin capsules of gas are concealed in radio microphones and then detonated by signals beamed in from another part of the building. Now the gas doesn’t do anything, but when the victim then smokes a cigarette that has been laced with some weird element the combination causes instant death! Why the bad guys don’t just shoot their victims is beyond me.
*. I’m pretty sure that’s the loopiest thing I’d ever seen in a Charlie Chan up to this point. Throw in a tunnel room that exposes anyone who goes into it to both extreme heat and cold (with snow!) and you’ve got a very high nonsense quotient. But as I said about the colour, at this point I wasn’t taking marks off for any signs of life.
*. The best part though is the back-and-forth between Moreland and his nightclub partner Ben Carter, where they recreate a classic routine of finishing each other’s sentences in impossible ways. You may recall this routine from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I thought this was very funny, and even better is the fact that it’s not racialized in any way. I could just enjoy it, which was a relief.
*. It’s easy to dump on these Charlie Chan movies put out by Monogram. They were lousy. So I’ll try to start off being positive here.
*. The plot is once again bewildering in its complexity. I honestly had no idea what was going on, or even what the title was referring to. But this is par for the series. What I enjoyed this time was the bizarre setting. Once again we have one of those labs that some rich gentleman-scientist has set up in his isolated, palatial estate. I’m not sure how far back this idea goes, but it had legs. It shows up again in the original version of The Fly (1958), for example.
*. In this case a Dr. Harper is doing investigations into poisonous gases, which means he has a gas chamber in his basement. Harper ends up dead and it seems everyone is a suspect since everyone hated him. And since the government has an interest in finding the formula for a gas Harper was working on, Charlie, who is still working for the Secret Service, is called in to investigate.
*. The proceedings aren’t just complicated but bizarre, involving the aforementioned gas chamber, secret passageways, a door that can only be opened by a voice-recognition system, poison darts fired out of a ventriloquist’s dummy, a cast of the killer’s ear that provides the final clue, and, capping things off, the hilarious bit of Scooby-Doo business where a mask is taken off of one character revealing that they’re actually one of the other characters. Wow. That’s some mask! And it just pulls right off!
*. Well, to be fair they were doing the same thing with the masks in all of those early Mission: Impossible movies, where it was no less ridiculous. Some plot devices you just have to roll with.
*. Unfortunately, all this wackiness is let down by what are some of the worst performances in any of the Chan movies thus far (and that’s a long, long list). Sidney Toler appears almost comatose, and even his put-downs are tired (for example: “If silence is golden then you are bankrupt”). Mantan Moreland joins him again as Birmingham Brown, but this time he has nothing to do. Then there’s Number Four Son Eddie Chan. Eddie is a bit different from his siblings in being a bespectacled egghead. I liked the change-up, but he has no energy and the actor playing him (Edwin Luke in what I believe was his first and only credited film role) is no Keye Luke (in fact he was Keye’s younger brother) or Victor Sen Yung.
*. Most of the supporting players are dreadful. Al Bridge plays Sheriff Mack and he’s one of the only bright spots. A lot of the other faces seem like total non-actors. If you want to see what people who can’t act do when they’re thrown in front of a camera, here’s your chance.
*. To be honest, the only way I can manage getting through these later Chan movies is because they’re short, coming in between 60-70 minutes. This one has enough weirdness about it to make it sporadically interesting, but it’s still a terrible movie that feels thrown together, and it lost me entirely at the end.
*. Black Magic (later retitled Meeting at Midnight to avoid confusion with Orson Welles’s Black Magic) was the third of the dismal Monogram Charlie Chan pictures and was directed by Phil Rosen, who had also helmed the previous two.
*. They were obviously out of ideas. Not only are the usual Chan tropes recycled — the hand holding a gun sticking through the crack of a doorway, the lights being suddenly turned off at a key moment — but the whole plot is just a pastiche of earlier elements.
*. Once again Charlie is investigating a phony magician/mentalist/hypnotist who is using the black arts for no good. This had already been done in The Black Camel, Charlie Chan’s Secret, and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. This time out there’s a séance where someone is killed in a particularly mysterious way that Charlie proceeds to piece together.
*. Is there anything good to say about this? Well, they gave Tommy Chan (Benson Fong) the day off and have Frances Chan taking over her brother’s duties. Not Iris Chan, the daughter who appeared in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, but Frances Chan. Frances Chan is played by . . . Frances Chan! That’s neat. I guess they couldn’t resist.
*. Also neat is the killer’s method of using a mind-control drug to get his victims to walk off the roofs of high-rises. That actually gives us the movie’s one decent scene.
*. Mantan Moreland is back as Birmingham Brown, someone who just can’t get away from those darn Chans. Given the nature of the plot he gets to spend a lot of time being frightened of ghosts and such, while trying to make himself disappear by snapping his fingers and saying “Abracadabra!” Nothing funny or fresh about this at all.
*. Back in the ’40s and ’50s I guess it was common to pronounce “homicide” as home-icide. I don’t think that’s the way it’s pronounced today at all. This is something I mentioned in my notes on The Woman in the Window so it didn’t surprise me here. What did surprise me was the way séance was pronounced see-ance. Séances weren’t new in the 1940s so I don’t know if they were just being thick here or if that’s the way they really pronounced it back then in the U.S.
*. Getting through these Monogram Chans has become a bit of a chore and I don’t know if I’ll be able to soldier on through the whole canon. Or Chanon. But even if I make it, there’s no point in anyone else doing the same.