Mystery movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Keye Luke, Grant Withers, Lotus Long, Charles Miller, Huntley Gordon, Virginia Carpenter, John H. Dilson. Screenplay: George Waggner. Director: Phil Rosen.

   The final film in Monogram’s Mr. Wong series, Phantom of Chinatown is notable for being the only movie in which an American actor of Chinese heritage, rather than the veteran horror film actor Boris Karloff, portrayed the Chinese-American detective.

   With a screenplay by George Waggner, director of Man Made Monster, which I reviewed here, and The Wolf Man, it’s also a fairly good, if at times excruciating slow moving, mystery and spy film, set during an era when Imperial Japan threatened the territorial integrity of China.

   Directed by Phil Rosen, Phantom of Chinatown doesn’t have a phantom or anything supernatural in it at all. It’s simply an entertaining and overall well-crafted mystery story with a dash of international intrigue. There are also some memorable scenes, including one with a trap door, which fans of 1930s pulp fiction, will most likely appreciate.

   Most importantly, however, the film has Keye Luke as the youthful Jimmy (not Mr.) Wong. Fans of mystery films will know Luke primarily for his portrayal of “Number One Son” in the Walter Oland Charlie Chan films or for his role as Kato in The Green Hornet. Indeed, Phantom of Chinatown was the only film in which Luke was both the star and lead character.

   In many ways, that’s a real shame. Luke’s portrayal of Jimmy Wong, although a bit too stiff, wasn’t bad at all. In fact, he was quite fun to watch, particularly in those scenes in which his character appeared to have a better understanding of the case at hand than Captain Street (Grant Withers). It’s too bad, then, that the filmmakers didn’t realize that Withers’s height advantage over Luke would, in some ways, make his character appear to almost overshadow Jimmy Wong.

   The story follows Jimmy Wong (Luke) as he teams up with San Francisco policeman, Captain Street (Withers), to solve the murder of Dr. Benton, an archeologist who recently returned to the United States from Mongolia. The university professor brought back a scroll with him.

   And as it turns on, what’s written on the scroll has something to do with why he was murdered! Adding to the mystery is Dr. Benton’s Chinese secretary, Win Lee (Lotus Long), whom Captain Street initially suspects as playing a part in her employer’s murder. There’s also a butler, who’s of course a potential suspect, but he gets ruled out pretty quickly once he’s found with a dagger in his chest. The movie wraps up in a similar fashion as other B-film mysteries from the same era, namely with a final showdown and a generally satisfying, if somewhat clichéd, explanation of all that’s transpired.

   In conclusion, Phantom of Chinatown, while hardly ranking among the greatest of mystery films, is nevertheless worth a look. It’s just a fun little film.

FRAMED FOR MURDER. Goldsmith Productions, 1934. Wallace Ford, June Clyde, Bradley Page, Fuzzy Knight, Barbara Rogers, Shirley Lee. Also released as I Hate Women. Director: Aubrey Scotto.

   If you were to do an accurate measurement of how many of the 70 or so minutes of this murder mystery movie are those of an actual murder mystery movie and how many are those of a romantic comedy, I’d be willing to wager that it would come out to about half and half, plus or minus five minutes.

   The comedy is corny and the romance is sappy — who’d ever think of Wallace Ford as a romantic leading man? — but Wallace Ford as a hard-drinking newspaper reporter who accidentally ends up sharing an apartment with the widow (June Clyde) of a murdered millionaire who’s on the run from the police who think she had a hand in it — why that you might believe.

   The murder mystery portion of the movie is OK, which is the technical term used to describe a murder investigation that moves forward in fits and starts but hangs together at the end, sort of. Part of Ford’s problem, besides decides who gets to sleep in the one bed in the apartment they’re sharing, he or the widow, now a blonde, is another reporter intent on snatching the story right from under Ford’s nose.

   Also worth mentioning is the date of release of Framed for Murder, 10 May 1934, which according to my sources, makes this predate the enforcement of the Movie Code, and just barely, it shows. No pun intended. Besides the byplay about who sleeps in the bed, June Clyde’s character was previously seen hiding in a shower with no clothes on with another good-looking and easy-going lady who happens to be Ford’s next door neighbor. (All we really see is two pair of very shapely legs as they step in unison from behind the curtain.)

   The actual killer (Shirley Lee) is so far down in the list of cast members, that if you dig for her name, you might never be able to come up for air, but she does a night club act in the skimpiest of apparel that has to be seen to be believed. (This was her only movie.)

   How’s that for a come on?

THREE BLONDES IN HIS LIFE. Cinema Associates, 1961. Jock Mahoney, Greta Thyssen, Jesse White, Elaine Edwards, Anthony Dexter, Valerie Porter. Director: Leon Chooluck.

   When an insurance investigator on the West Coast mysteriously disappears, the head of the firm on the East Coast sends Duke Wallace, Jock Mahoney’s character, across country to find out what happened.

   Turns out that the man in question was seriously attracted to blondes, and his wife has dyed her hair that color to keep him, to little avail. It also turns out that the man is dead, in what appears to be a love nest cabin up in the mountains. There are two other blondes in the story, both love-starved wives involved in cases that Collins (the dead man) had been working and closed.

   What this is is the kind of movie in which we see just how love-starved the three blondes are, as Duke makes his appointed rounds (in suit and tie) to each of the three ladies in question and in turn, but the funny thing is that he always manages to keep the suit and tie on, or at least he does while the cameras are rolling.

   There also is a lot of emphasis on bosoms and bottoms, including those of the secretary of the fellow who heads up the West Coast office, but since she’s a brunette, she doesn’t really count, but I’ll mention the actress who plays her, Darlene Hendricks, just for the record.

   I was reminded a lot of the second- or third-rank tier of fictional PI’s in the paperbacks of the 50s and 60s, guys like Johnny Liddell, Peter Chambers and Lou Largo. The budget was smaller than it might have been, though, and the story seems to end just as the money probably ran out.

   There is one fight scene that might make this movie worth watching, though, if you happen to watch long enough. It comes quite close to end, and it begins with Duke, or rather Jock Mahoney doing his own stunts (or so I’m told), crashing headlong through a closed door, clear across the room at full tilt, and ramming into the guy inside, uptilting him as well as himself against a stuffed chair and into the wall on the left side of the screen, upon which point they manage to smash up the rest of the room very thoroughly and badly.

   It nearly took my breath away, it did.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE. Central Cinema Company Film, Germany, 1962. Original title: Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes. Christopher Lee (Sherlock Holmes), Thorley Walters (Dr. Watson), Hans Söhnker (Professor Moriarty), Hans Nielsen, Senta Berger, Ivan Desny, Wolfgang Lukschy, Leon Askin, Edith Schultze-Westrum (Mrs. Hudson). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, based on the novel The Valley of Fear, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Co-)Director: Terence Fisher.

   In spite of some very good scenes, this film was largely a disappointment, the first reason being that all of the English-speaking actors, including Christopher Lee, were dubbed (or redubbed) back into English, by the voices of others. What a waste of talent, and only to save a few dollars in production costs (as I understand it).

   Perhaps even better than Lee in the leading role is the German actor who plays Moriarty, and very much Holmes’ equal in several tense scenes they share together. As Dr. Watson, British character actor Thorley Walters plays the part as one or two notches above the level of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling portrayal, but no more than that, nor is he nearly as charming.

   There is very little resemblance to the story in this film to Doyle’s Valley of Fear, but the one scene which appears in each is one of the better ones in the film. The “Deadly Necklace” of the title is one that belonged to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, and Dr. Moriarty is determined to have it in his possession, at all costs. Sherlock Holmes demurs, and the game is on.

   The setting seems to be in the 1910s, based on the use of vintage autos of that era rather than hansom cabs, which clashes with a very nice jazzy and swinging film score much more appropriate to a jazzy and swinging movie from the 1960s.

   But the biggest problem is the presence of scenes that exist only for cinematic effect and otherwise do not go anywhere, such as an opening scene with Holmes (in disguise) watching Moriarty at the docks before we know who either player is, and which is not referred to later on except in the briefest of mentions.

   Or another in which Holmes (in disguise) calls for help in front of his apartment in Baker Street, is “rescued” by Watson, who finds him collapsed on the doorstep and does not recognize his friend. It is all a hoax played by Holmes on Watson, but why?

   And, oh, one other thing. Whenever I leave my car, whether I’m involved in an accident or not, I always take my keys with me.

   Give this one a pass, unless you’re a fan of Christopher Lee. Fans of Sherlock Holmes might otherwise want to stay away, or at least don’t go too far out of your way to obtain a copy, even though copies are easily (and quite inexpensively) found.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MOONLIGHT MURDER. MGM, 1936. Chester Morris, Madge Evans, Leo Carrillo, Frank McHugh, J. Carroll Naish, H.B. Warner, Grant Mitchell, Duncan Renaldo, Robert McWade. Directed by Edward L. Marin.

   A well done little programmer with Chester Morris as detective Steve Farrell a homicide cop who finds himself up to his neck in murder with an opera troupe playing at the Hollywood Bowl. This solid little murder mystery has an actual plot, clever murder method, an armful of suspects who have motive, and a nice twist you will only see coming because of the actor cast in the role.

   Leo Carrillo is Gino, opera star extraordinary, egotistical, vain, and ladies’ man playing the women in the cast off each other. His stand-in (Ivan Bosoff) wants to replace him on stage, conductor H. B. Warner is fed up with the whole cast, the young male ingenue (Duncan Renaldo) loves one of the women Gino is seducing, both young women (Benita Hume, Elizabeth Anderson) being played by Gino have motive, as does even his valet (Frank McHugh), as the only one who benefits from Gino’s will. Then there is mad composer J. Carroll Naish who is obsessed by Gino and overhears a threat to his life.

   Police Chief Quinlin (Robert McWade) doesn’t think there is anything to it, but young detective Steve Farrell does, and between Gino’s bouts with illness and the insane Naish, there is enough to keep him around, not to mention his attraction to Gino’s physician friend Dr. Adams (Grant Mitchell)’s niece Toni (Madge Evans), a scientist who clicks with him as you can only click in the movies. Then Naish escapes from Steve on the opening night of the opera and Gino collapses on stage, dead, in mid performance.

   Gino was murdered, but the poison was delivered airborne and he was on stage alone in front of thousands of witnesses including his doctor and the Chief.

   There is some neat detective work going on, and this relies much less on dumb luck than most film murder mysteries. All the suspects have legitimate motives, and each one is suspected in turn. There are red herrings, misdirection, dead-end clues, and when a second murder occurs under Steve’s nose he ends up back on the beat for concealing embarrassing letters written by the opera’s diva.

   Dr. Adams thinks he might find something at the site of the murder, but he is attacked too. He’s only shaken up, but Steve, on patrol at the murder scene, discovers the clue that will break the case, only to find himself confronted by two suspects, neither of whom he wants to believe could have murdered Gino.

   I won’t give away the murderer or the method. because both are better than you might expect, and for once the least likely suspect is both logical and has a legitimate motive that the movie has actually played fair with. If you were paying attention you could actually watch this and solve the case: for once nothing is concealed and and you have as much chance of solving the case as Morris’s Steve Farrell does.

   Like Edmond Lowe, Morris was born to play detectives. His rapid patter, razor profile, and direct acting style made him ideal for this sort of thing. You always felt there was a mind working behind Morris’s actions in this sort of film and that his brains weren’t all in his fists.

   The cast is solid, though Naish chews the scenery to the point you may want to commit murder yourself. He’s generally a fine actor, but some of the grimaces on his face may have you laughing too hard to actually pay attention to what’s happening on screen. He plays his madman so crazy you have to wonder he wasn’t already locked away for life before the film began. It’s about the only misstep in the film though.

   All in all, this little sleeper turns out to be a pleasant surprise, and a decent murder mystery you might well admire in a book, much less a film.

  THE KING MURDER. Chesterfield, 1932. Conway Tearle, Natalie Moorhead, Marceline Day, Dorothy Revier, Don Alvarado, Huntley Gordon, Maurice Black, Robert Frazer. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   People who read this blog on a regular basis are a lot more likely to recognize some of the actors and actresses who appeared in this movie, but I have to admit that until now I hadn’t heard of any of them. One I’d have liked to have seen more of in the film itself is Dorothy Revier, who had a long career in the silents before this one, as well as for another five or six years afterward.

   Unfortunately she had the misfortune of playing the blonde gold-digger (and blackmailer) who ends up (not surprisingly) being the first murder victim no more than 10 or 15 minutes into the movie.

   Given her rather shady way of making a living, in more ways than one, there is a long list of would-be killers, the sorting out of who might be the real one makes for a surprisingly entertaining 60 minutes or more. Even though talkies hadn’t been around for very long when The King Murder was produced, the people who made seem to have known what they were doing, even with the budget restrictions they must have been working under.

   Don’t get me wrong. The movie certainly shows its age, and the method used to kill Miriam King and an unfortunate police officer is awfully creaky, if not downright impossible. But for a murder mystery made in 1932, you can do a lot worse.

   And as a note in passing, the original review in Variety suggested that the movie is based on the 1923 unsolved Manhattan murder of Dorothy King, a model and nightclub hostess who may also have been a blackmailer. It was one of two similar murders dubbed “The Butterfly Murders,” both victims drawn to the glamor of Broadway, only to end up dead. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK. Paramount Pictures, 1941. Chester Morris, Jean Parker, Rose Hobart, Dick Purcell, Astrid Allwyn, Rod Cameron, Lorin Raker, Billie Seward, George Watts, James Kirkwood, Robert Middlemass. Based on the novel by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring). Director: Frank McDonald.

   Given a little more in the way of production values, including some time to tinker with and upgrade the screenplay itself, this obscure little B-mystery could could have had a future. Chester Morris and Jean Parker play a couple of newly-marrieds in Reno, Nevada — he the well-known private detective Humphrey Campbell — whose honeymoon is interrupted and taken over by a few murders and a host of beautiful women as suspects, in all varieties: a redhead, a blonde and a brunette.

   Missing is the son of a wealthy rancher, and Oscar Flack (George Watts), Humphrey’s boss, is no one to turn down a big fee only because his star employee is on vacation. And since the incentive he offers is a fur coat to Mrs. Campbell, Humphrey cannot turn it down, nor can he persuade his beautiful bride to keep her nose out of his business. Especially when all of the women in the case are good-looking. (See above.)

   If you were to go online and look for other reviews of this comedy adventure of a movie, you’d find that everyone one of them is going to tell you how complicated the plot is, nor are they exaggerating. The pairing of Morris and Parker is delightful, and the comedy is mostly fine (I could have done without the dumb policeman), but if you can make sense of the mystery part of the story the first time through, or even the second, you’re a better person than I.

   I should point out that the version I saw on an DVD may be five minutes shorter than both IMDb and AFI say it should be, and if so, that might make a big difference. I have a feeling that what the makers of this movie wanted to do was put everything in that was in the original book, and it just couldn’t be done, whether in 71 minutes or 76.   [FOOTNOTE.]

   In any case, there was no chance for a series to have developed from this as a first one, if ever there was one in mind. Chester Morris immediately went on to bigger and better things as Boston Blackie, while Jean Parker, alas, had to settle for two later films as Kitty O’Day, which I also have on DVD and after watching this one I duly intend to watch any day now.

FOOTNOTE: As it turns out, the video copy I discovered on YouTube (see above) does have some if not all of the missing footage, all from the beginning. It is extremely helpful in making sense of much of what follows, but not all. I guess you get what you pay for.

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