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Featured Post - Mystery Movie Marathon

I thought I'd kick the new year off with another movie marathon. I thought it was time to check out a few old school mystery flicks. Som...

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

This is the third installment of the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies and the first that moved the action to “current” time aka. the forties when it was made. This also means it is set during the Second World War, so we of course have some Nazi spies running around. Here we are introduced to the Voice of Terror aka. a broadcast from Nazi Europe taunting the British populace over the radio. The voice warns them of sabotage seemingly while it is about to happen. The government is frustrated by their inability to stop the disasters before they happen so call in Holmes to root out those responsible.

Here is where it gets good. Holmes with Watson in tow starts to poke around the criminal underground of London looking for help. See those folks know everything that happens in the city so might have information they don’t even know they have. Sadly, this leads to a man falling dead on the doorstep of 221b Baker Street. Undeterred Holmes goes to the bad part of town to speak to the dead man’s girlfriend, Kitty. She ends up convincing the local ruffians to help fight the Nazis out of self-preservation and maybe a little bit of patriotism. With the clues they provide Holmes does in fact root out the Voice of Terror as well as stopping a planned invasion of England. Though not before the Nazis show themselves to be evil by murdering Kitty out of spite!

As I’ve just said with my recent review of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, I love these movies set during World War II. They have a fun nostalgic charm to them that makes me want to go right into the lobby and buy some war bonds. Okay that might be a bit too much of a deep dive for you guys but trust me that is a good thing. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is more of an adventure flick with a healthy dose of action and spy craft then it is a mystery story. Though there is the obvious hidden identity of the Voice as well as their plans that needs to be figured out, so I feel like it still belongs here in the marathon. Plus, it is Sherlock Holmes so where else would it fit?

Between the forementioned action and spy shenanigans the sixty-six minute runtime flies by. Seriously the pacing here is excellent without a single wasted scene. It seems that every line of dialogue and character action is leading us to the big finale. This is what I think they would have called a “programmer” back in the day. Made for a matinee or as the bottom half of a double bill it wastes little time getting to good stuff and entertains the audience before quickly wrapping things up. Eighty plus years later it still manages to entertain and be a good way to kill an hour or so. That is impressive.

If I had a complaint about the movie, I would say that it does show the lower budget. Shot during the war there was an obvious limit to the money available to be spent on the production. This leads to a lot of stock footage standing in for the acts of sabotage with buildings burning and trains wrecking. Pre and post war I’d imagine they would have done some miniature work but here they are clearly using recycled footage from other flicks. The big finale with the German invasion force being met in the English Channel is mostly hinted at with radio broadcasts rather than showing us in ships or planes in combat. The fact that the script was ambitious enough to include this as the payoff to the story but couldn’t afford to show us any of it is a bit disappointing. I would have preferred a simpler story that could have had the payoff onscreen.

The cast is solid. As always Basil Rathbone is great as Sherlock Holmes, and I still think Nigel Bruce is my favorite Dr. Watson. Along with them we get a solid performance in supporting roles from Evelyn Ankers (Son of Dracula, Hold That Ghost) as Kitty and Henry Daniels. Notably Daniels would return in a later Holmes movie playing arch villain Moriarty.

In the end I still really liked Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. The pacing, great cast, and war time storyline all appeal to me. I’m not sure that this is the first of the fourteen Rathbone outings as Holmes that I would suggest sitting down to watch as others are more mysteries and therefore inline with the character, but it isn’t a bad way to kill an hour. If you get the chance check this one out.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Road Trip to the Drive-in – Vin and Nic double feature!

After a few aborted attempts to make my way to the drive-in, the weather in Ohio never cooperates this time of year, I finally got to watch some movies outside under the stars. I do love my local drive-in theaters and yes I’m lucky to have a few around me. Within a forty minute drive I have three, but my favorite is Magic City, which is where I managed to catch a double feature of Fast X and Renfield. 

I got to Magic City early enough that there wasn’t much of a line. I was a bit concerned about it being the Sunday before Memorial Day, but it wasn’t too bad. Though cars kept arriving after I was parked and even during the first twenty minutes of Fast X. After getting a primo spot I headed off to the snack bar to pick up my traditional treat. While they still have cheeseburgers and hotdogs, I’ve always been partial to some tasty hot pretzels with nacho cheese. Since I’ve missed out on a couple of weeks due to rain, I thought I’d pick up a couple of them. Yeah, a lame excuse but I’m a grown ass man so if I want to eat badly then I can! They were quite good in case you were wondering. 

After some previews of coming attractions our first movie of the night kicked off. Say what you want to about the Fast and Furious film franchise, but I like it. These flicks are all about fast cars defying gravity while being loud and dumb. That last bit doesn’t just apply to the action sequences either. Fast X checked all those boxes with returning characters, including one in the post credits scene that surprised the hell out of me. Don’t they hate each other? Then again, these movies are a virtual license to print money so I suppose they were able to bury whatever beef they might have for a fat payday. 

Without going into too many details and spoiling the flick I can say that this movie was decent. In fact, my only real complaint is that it ends on a cliffhanger that will have to wait a couple of years for them to resolve in the next and supposedly final entry. Though at some point during production I thought they said Fast X was the big finale. Confused? See my point above about how much money these flicks make. 

After a brief intermission where I used the men’s room it was time for Renfield to start. This movie has been out for a while but since I don’t do brick and mortar theaters anymore this was my first chance to check it out. I remember this one catching my attention when I first heard that Nic Cage was playing Dracula. I’ve been loving his recent output (Willy’s Wonderland is killer) and was looking forward to it. Honestly though this was a mixed bag for me. 

The movie is at its best when Cage is on screen chewing up scenery. He plays an excellent, scary Dracula all while still being a bit quirky. This leads to some funny lines of dialogue and a lot of blood and guts. Hell, even when he isn’t on screen there is a ton of gore happening. Arms getting torn off, throats ripped to shreds, as well as Riki-Oh style x-ray shots showing organs and bones getting pulverized are just a few of the highlights. Some of this is practical effects work but even the CGI is done well enough that it is a good time. 

But when the movie is focused on the titular character things slow down a bit. I don’t blame the actor, Nicholas Hoult, as he is very good in the role. It is just that the script doesn’t give him much to do other than be mopey and spout off self help nonsense he learned in his support group. He also gets a love interest in local cop Rebecca, who is played by Awkwafina. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of her but she is legitimately good here despite also not being given much to do. There is also a criminal family that gets zero development and almost feels like a late addition to the script to setup the finale. So, we have good gore and a decent cast that is let down by an underdeveloped script. I’ve seen this story done much better in the Pittsburgh lensed Innocent Blood. Still, I was happy to have caught this in the drive-in and not waited to see it streaming at home.

As the credits rolled, I packed up my stuff and headed home. It was a beautiful night to watch some movies under the stars and an even better one for a nice ride home. I sincerely hope that the weather is good for a few more trips this summer and that the double features are appealing. If I head out again I’ll post them here. I’d also love to hear from you guys about your favorite trips to the drive-in. Until next time keep watching crappy movies!

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)

The movie is set during World War II and opens with a scientist doing research on some secret weapon that will stop the German U-boat threat. For those not in the know the German subs were sinking lots of shipping before it could reach the front, so this was topical at the time and something audiences would have immediately grabbed onto. There are some Federal Agents guarding the scientist and his research. This becomes embarrassing when the man walks downstairs (his lab is in his house) for a dinner party and is killed right under their noses. What is worse are the missing plans for the weapon he was working on.

The party guests are locked down and Chan is called to solve the murder and recover the missing blueprints before they can fall into the wrong hands. The rest of the movie is him figuring out who killed the victim and how they managed to do so. In the end the spies, because of course there are German spies, are caught and the war effort protected by recovering the missing plans.

By the forties the Chan series was established but not considered “A” pictures anymore. That is likely how Monogram got their hands on it. This is the first of the movies made under their watch and honestly it isn’t too bad. You can see a bit of a drop off in the budgets, but they still made the effort to create a decent mystery and entertain the audience. The script does a solid job showing us Chan moving around the house collecting clues and talking to the suspects, though the audience doesn’t get a solid idea of what is being found so trying to solve the mystery along with the characters is a no go. Though things flow nicely, and the pacing is solid with the resolution coming after an entertaining sixty three minutes.

I’d also have to say that the added flavor of the spy sneaking around was a fun addition. Much like the later Sherlock Holmes movies the Chan series leaned heavily into the patriotic war effort as it was an appealing twist to the wartime audiences. This was a common occurrence in all sorts of movies. Abbott and Costello joined the army in Buck Privates and were In the Navy. Heck even the Three Stooges got in on the act poking fun at the Axis powers in several of their shorts. While this is before my time as a history nerd seeing this stuff while growing up always put a smile on my face and still does. Here it is a welcome as well as a nostalgic addition that works well.

What really makes me like Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is the addition of Mantan Mooreland and his comedic antics. With the move to Monogram the series took on that studio’s habit of adding in some slapstick to their movies. Mooreland had already done a lot of work for them including a couple of solid zombie flicks, so he was familiar and slotted right into this franchise. Here he gets a couple fun gags with my favorite being his shenanigans mixing himself some drinks. We also get Benson Fong returning as Tommy and as a bonus we get to see one of Chan’s daughters get involved as Iris is right there with Tommy. I should also point out that this is the first time Sidney Toler played the character. He was the third and final actor to do the classic Chan flicks.

I guess I’m doing a deep dive here that you all probably don’t care about. If it isn’t clear yet I love these movies and could talk about them for hours. But I won’t bore you guys any further. Between the Nazi spies running around taking shots at Chan and the addition of the Birmingham Brown character for the first time Charlie Chan in the Secret Service has always been and continues to be one of my favorites of the franchise. While not the best mystery it has so much other stuff going for it that I highly recommend you check it out.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Friday, May 26, 2023

While the Patient Slept (1935)

While poking around looking for movies to cover here at the site I stumbled upon the Sarah Keate series. This movie was based on a book series from Mignon G. Eberhart, who was referred to as the American Agatha Christie. I had never heard of the character or the author before, so I was intrigued. Then I found out that they made six movies based on Eberhart’s writing and of course I tracked them all down. Well four of the five so far. This is the first of them brought to the screen, so it seemed like a good place to start.

Things kick off with the always fun setting of an old mansion at night with a storm raging outside. We meet Grandfather, who isn’t feeling so well. This has brought his family to his side waiting for him to die. Well at least he thinks they are just there for his money and it gives us a lot of suspects for what is to come later. When he collapses after receiving a telegram a nurse is called to take care of him. That of course is our main character, Sarah Keate. She arrives and starts caring for him while the rest of the family beds down for the night. Though it is brief as before morning a shot rings out and one of the family, Adolphe, is found dead on the stairs.

The police are called and the head detective starts to interrogate and yell at the suspects. Lt. Lance, the cop, also is sweet on Keate and has some sort of history with her that the movie doesn’t explain. There are also some other detectives that mostly serve as comic relief as they try to figure out who the killer is and why. Though this doesn’t happen before another body is found, this time the family butler. I suppose the butler didn’t do it. In the end everything is explained and the murderer is exposed.

While the Patient Slept has a lot of good things going for it. The setting of the old mansion is familiar and well executed. From the characters creeping around in the shadows, to the storm rattling the windows it is fun. We also get hands reaching from behind curtains to menace folks, hidden passages, and secret doors. Just about all you would expect from the movie. There is also a big twist that if you are paying attention to the dialogue was shared with us before it is revealed. Oh, and the dialogue is snappy with the sort of rapid fire delivery that is common in a lot of these early “talkie” movies. They were heavily influenced by the presentation of theatrical plays and that can make for a good time.

I was also impressed with the performance of Aline MacMahon as Sarah Keate. Her performance is good as she brings a lighthearted sense of fun to the proceedings If you haven’t figured it out yet this movie does lean into the humor a bit. That seems to be an issue with fans of the books, which I believe must be much more serious. Though much like the Charlie Chan series, which was also based on some novels, the movie adaptation was influenced by the popular murder mystery mixed with romance and comedy trend that was happening in popular entertainment at the time. I will need to check out the books at some point which may change my opinion here but for now I’d say it was fine.

The only negative that I can say about this movie is that we never get the clue to solve it. I’ve said it again and again but part of the fun with a story like this is trying to figure out the mystery along with the characters. Here there is a big cheat where the detective had information that we never get until he exposes the character who was doing all the killing. That was annoying, but that alone isn’t enough to spoil the fun. While the Patient Slept is a good time and well worth checking out. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the movies in this series.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Things open in a courtroom where the nefarious Professor Moriarty is on trial for murder, or at least he was. He has just been declared innocent, despite everyone knowing he was guilty. Sherlock Holmes shows up with the evidence that would have convicted him just as the case ends and is too late. The Professor declares to Holmes after the trial that he will commit the crime of the century under his nose proving once and for all that he is the greatest mind in all of England.

Not long after Holmes is visited by a young woman named Ann who is concerned for the well being of her brother Lloyd. He has received a strange letter in the mail one just like their father got before he was murdered. Despite being asked to keep an eye out on the transfer of the latest crown jewel, The Star of Delhi, Holmes spends his time helping her. When Lloyd is murdered this seems like a good choice. But is it? How does Ann’s problems tie in with Moriarty’s crime of the century? These questions are all answered in a great finale/chase at the Tower of London.

This is a very good movie so I’m trying to keep my synopsis as vague as possible to not spoil anything. There is a real mystery here that engages the audience and keeps them guessing from start to finish. There is a lot going on as Moriarty tosses clues, seemingly at random, at Holmes trying to confuse him and obfuscate his crimes. That said if you pay close attention the vital bits needed to sort things out are provided, which as I’ve said before is vital for a mystery story to work. I need to have a chance to figure it out for myself if you want me to enjoy what I’m watching. Here they do that very thing, and I was hooked.

The cast is great with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce returning as Holmes and Watson. This second entry is also the first time we get to see some of the comedic elements to Bruce’s portrayal as the good doctor. It isn’t slapstick, which wouldn’t have played with well with a story like this but is instead some good natured wordplay. It brings a levity that was a hallmark to later entries into the franchise. New to the cast are the legendary Ida Lupino as Ann and the great George Zucco as Moriarty. It shocks me that more genre fans don’t know Zucco by name, but if you have watched any classic horror from the thirties and forties you will recognize his face.

I believe that this is the last of the movies to take place in the late eighteen hundreds as they movie the action to “current” day of the forties as the franchise continued into the war years. I’ll speak more on that when we get to them. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a good time and well worth checking out. You can find this online streaming for free so there is no reason not to give it a chance. I highly recommend it.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

I don’t think that I’ve ever covered a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie ever. Not for this site nor for any other project that I’ve ever worked on. That sort of shocks me as I’ve always been a huge fan of these movies. Since I’m in the midst of my current mystery marathon I figured it was time to finally dive in. Unlike the Chan flicks I figured to do these in order so with that in mind lets look at the first cinematic adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The movie opens with a man running thru the moors fleeting from some unseen terror. He collapses and dies, which we know since the next scene is the coroner’s inquest. They determine that it was natural causes, though his friend Dr. Mortimer insists he was murdered. I suppose I should also mention that the man was the current Sir Baskerville. This is important since Henry, the heir, has arrived in England to claim his inheritance. Dr. Mortimer is concerned for his safety and comes to see Holmes about it.

After some shenanigans in London Holmes sends Sir Henry off to his estate with Dr. Watson tagging along to keep an eye on him. He claims he needs to finish another case, but the truth is Sherlock wishes to sneak into the village to investigate without anyone knowing he is there. After we are introduced to some locals aka. suspects the mystery starts to take shape. What appears to be a spectral beast referenced in a family curse turns out to have a much more mundane origin. Someone is after Sir Henry, but it isn’t some spiritual entity or family curse. Nope this is all about good old human greed.

I’ve read this story many times and have seen this as well as all the other adaptations of it so there wasn’t much mystery involved for me. But even if I hadn’t gone into it with that knowledge, I would say that this isn’t your typical Holmes story. There is far less deduction and collection of clues in The Hound of the Baskervilles as it leans more into the action with them running around the moors chasing down the things that go bump or actually howl in the night. Not only do we have the mysterious beast mentioned in the title but there is also an escaped murdered/lunatic. And the latter doesn’t even have anything to do with the main story!

There is a lot going on. Ironically, this is also the story that doesn’t feature Holmes that much. He disappears for a large stretch as the action focuses on Sir Henry and Dr. Watson meeting the locals. There is a killer and their identity is eventually revealed but we don’t get a lot in the way of collecting clues and because of that you don’t get to play along with the characters trying to sort out the puzzle of who done it. The movie does make up for that with some excellent pacing clocking in at a tight eighty minutes there isn’t a wasted scene.

Oh and make sure that you are watching the version that is eighty minutes long. There are other cuts out there that were made for television as well as removing a particularly controversial line. For those not familiar with the classic stories of Conan Doyle he had his detective addicted to cocaine, which was the only way he could relax and allow his mind to go idle. The last line of the uncut movie reflects this. “Oh, Watson… the needle.” It doesn’t add anything to the movie but I always prefer the original vision of the filmmakers.

The cast is solid with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appearing as Holmes and Watson respectively. They are great in this movie and have immediate chemistry. This is one of the main reasons that we ended up with another thirteen of these movies. That was despite of the mixed quality of the latter entries. There are also fun appearances from Lionel Atwill as Dr. Mortimer and John Carradine as Barryman the butler. Atwill would appear later in the series as Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty.

While not my favorite version of the character, that would be Jeremy Brett in the Granada television series, Rathbone was the first to really sink his teeth into the role. If you are new to the character this would be a nice place to start and is available to watch online for free. Of his movies this is probably the best. I highly recommend it.

One more thing before I go. The elaborate sets used for this movie were reused for the Charlie Chan flick Castle in the Desert which I’ve already covered here. It is always fun to find little connections like this while doing research on my reviews.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The House of Mystery (1934)

The movie opens in Asia where we see an archaeologist named Prendergast getting drunk in a bar and eventually getting tossed out. We next see him crashing a sacred ceremony and talking down at the priest. Angered they curse him with the vengeance of their god, Kali, and animate a stuffed gorilla to attack him. But there is a dancer who apparently loves him and she helps in his escape.

The action then moves to twenty years later when a lawyer reads a newspaper headline about some treasure being looted all those years ago. I guess that Prendergast made good on this plans and stole the temple’s loot. Though he disappeared until recently being spotted and now the investors in his expedition want their cut. To this end they hire a lawyer named Ellis who contacts Prendergast and they all plan to meet at his country home. When they arrive they find him crippled and in a wheelchair. He warns that with the treasure comes the terrible curse. They don’t believe him until the investors start to die one by one at the hands of a gorilla! The police are called and after some twists and turns the mystery is solved.

I’ve included The House of Mystery in my marathon here though it more likely fits in the horror category. Though there is a murder and a spooky old house full of suspects there isn’t really a detective collecting clues. The police inspector that shows up after the first killing is played more for laughs and in a running gag has no idea what the heck is going on. I will say that eventually we do find out that a proper detective from Scotland Yard has been on the case from the start, but he only shows up at the end to give the solution. There is zero chance at figuring out who the killer is because we don’t get any clues. So again, while there are some familiar elements this isn’t much of a mystery.

Nothing quite like a good old Gorilla suit
With that out of the way what is this movie? What we have here is an early entry into the old dark house subgenre of early horror. Named after the movie of the same name that means we get a healthy dose of the spooky stuff. The boxes checked here include a séance, a mysterious note (actually a couple of them), hints at mysticism, secret passages, and as is the case with many of the sillier entries a gorilla costume! After a bit of a slow start the pacing is solid with the last half hour filled with the characters running around finding bodies. This combined with some snappy dialogue and odd but effective attempts at humor this is a decent flick.

I suppose I need to warn folks new to these early movies that it can seem a bit talky at times. We get a lot of dialogue and exposition. The reason for that is most of these scripts were adapted from stage plays. Plays don’t have the option of cutting in scenes at different locations so they filled in the blanks with characters talking about what happened elsewhere. Also the camera is very static as if they were trying to recreate the experience of sitting in a theater watching the play. For viewers used to modern movie sensibilities this can be a bit off-putting. But once you get adjust it can be a fun ride.

If what I just mentioned above doesn’t scare you away then I think The House of Mystery might be something you want to check out. It comes in at around an hour and is available all over the internet as the movie has long since fallen into the public domain.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Black Camel (1931)

I’m jumping all over the place with these Charlie Chan movies. This is one of the earlier entries and is maybe the second oldest surviving one around. As I’ve mentioned before there are older movies that are considered lost with the only copies having burned in a fire. As always when covering one of these if you have any questions to my thoughts on the casting of a white actor in an Asian role, please check this out. Now onto the review.

A film crew has arrived in Honolulu including the leading lady Shelah. On the way to the islands she met and fell madly in love with a fellow passenger, but before they can marry she insists on consulting her psychic Tarneverro. Here is where Chan enters the story as he intercepts Tarneverro and warns him not to practice his art. Basically he calls him out on being a faker, though Tarneverro implies that he and Chan only report on the subtle things that they observe. I think he basically outed himself as being a phony.

Chan also mentions the death or rather murder of an actor back on the mainland a couple of years earlier. This is important as when Tarneverro meets with Shelah he also brings it up. This leads to her admitting she knows who the murderer is and that later will reveal that to him. Before that happens, she turns up dead and the police are called. Now Chan is on the case for her murder, which connects to the one he was already looking into. Suspects are plentiful as the story plays out until in the end all is revealed.

This is an excellent movie and the only surviving one based on one of the four Earl Der Biggs novels which I think helps the story and plot a great deal. The other three were adapted but are among the lost films. They mystery is solid with the movie taking the time to give us many suspects who had both the motive and means. Then one by one they are either removed by the evidence or killed off by the real culprit. There is a lot going on and you must pay attention. Without spoiling anything I will let you know that The Black Camel does a wonderful job dropping clues that do point to the identity of the killer or killers. That is my number one must have for a mystery movie. It was also fun that my guess was totally wrong, but still plausible. The scriptwriting here is top notch.

This might be the best Warner Oland performance as Chan that I’ve seen, and I’ve watched most of these movies. It makes me sad that the missing films are his as if this any indication we are missing out on some great stuff. Unlike the jovial above it all portrayals from later in the series here Chan gets angry and frustrated at those around him. When he gets socked in the face he basically comes right out and lets the person responsible they will regret doing that. There is also a blink and you’ll miss it supporting appearance from Robert Young (Father Knows Best, Marcus Welby, M.D.) and an uncredited bit part played by Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein). Speaking of classic Universal horror, the legendary Bela Lugosi gets a rather meaty role as the psychic Tarneverro. Not only do we have a great story but an awesome cast as well!

Not sure what else I can say about this one to convince you to watch it. It is one of the best mystery movies that I’ve seen from the thirties. If you ever wanted to just dip your toes in to see if this sort of thing is for you then here is a good place to start. Personally, I will be revisiting it sooner rather than later. I highly recommend The Black Camel.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Monday, May 15, 2023

Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat (1944)

note: As is the case with all these Chan, Mr. Wong, and Mr. Moto movies I’ll direct you to this link for my thoughts on casting a white actor in Asian roles.

The movie opens with a man in his study working out something on a chessboard when a black gloved hand reaches in holding a gun and shoots him dead! His family hears the shot but is unable to get to him due to a locked door. I was thinking that we were going to have the classic locked room murder mystery, but it is quickly shown that there is a secret door. His family calls the police.

Months later we see that suspicion has now fallen onto the victim’s wife with the publishing of a book accusing her as such. Charlie Chan is approached by the daughter asking that he solve the crime that the police couldn’t and prove her mother is innocent. He only has forty eight hours before leaving for Cleveland but promises to try. This leads to a couple more murders, some clues, attempts on Chan’s life, as well as some comedy from his number three son Tommy. Oh and Birmingham Brown, the legendary Mantan Mooreland, is in this one as well. Toss in some Jade statues and stolen jewels for an all-around good time.

The pacing of the movie is solid with the murder happening right away with Chan being pulled into investigate shortly afterwards. There are many suspects and whenever they do the smuggling thing I always get a kick out of it. It adds a seedy underworld vibe that the straight up murders don’t. Plus, with it being made during the war years the movie not having a spy subplot was a nice break. The story is more action with a few fist fights, some torture, and a bit of gunplay than it is mystery as we aren’t given that many clues to follow, but there are some cool bits that the audience may see before it is revealed in the end. All that and we get some secret compartments and stolen gems!

This is also one of the later movies in the franchise an as such follows a slightly different formula with comedic bits being mixed in with the mystery. The funny stuff comes from the character of Tommy and that of Birmingham Brown. In these later movies the son is played as a more bumbling hindrance that is tolerated by his father then he is an asset. That said Benson Fong, who replaced Keye Luke from the earlier movies, is still quite good. Mantan Mooreland is doing his act in this movie and his snappy dialogue where he is almost speaking directly to the audience adds a lot to the proceedings. I like silly slapstick and they do it well. Here they are running around a funhouse interacting with the exhibits, which itself was a cool set piece. While some fans are more about the serious entries I can’t pass up on the jokes.

Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat is a less serious take on the characters and is one of the first that showed the changes in the franchise when it moved from a big studio to the poverty row Monogram Pictures. Funny with a hint of action and mystery makes this one a must see. I recommend it.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Friday, May 12, 2023

Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)

I’m back with another Charlie Chan movie. If this is the first of these that you are reading, I shared my thoughts on the obvious issues casting a white actor in the role of an Asian character here. I don’t want to keep rehashing when I review another of these flicks, and there are many of them. Now onto the review.

The movie opens with Chan arriving via an airplane in France. At the airport we see a beggar asking him for some change, which he happily gives. Chan then goes to the payphone and makes a call to a woman we later find out is named Nardi. They make plans to meet later as she has some important information for him. Right away the mystery is afoot! After some other characters are introduced he makes his way to a club where Nardi is a featured dancer. In front of the crowd she is murdered, but with her dying breath tells Charlie where he can find the clues she had collected for him.

After some twists and turns including Charlie avoiding the police (whom he nearly always works with on his cases) we find out that he was hired by a bank in London to investigate the how and why behind some fake bonds that have been passed off to their customers by a bank in France. The big secrecy is due to them not wanting to cause a panic or run on the banks. That is why Charlie keeps telling everyone that he is on vacation and not a case. He does eventually bring the criminals to justice but not before his son Lee shows up, an innocent woman is accused of murder, and another body hits the floor.

I’ve watched the movies in this series many times but had forgotten how great this one is. The mystery is full of twists and turns with many locations being used to heighten the who done it. This includes a neat sequence in a sewer system that is decently creepy. I always forget that the early entries in the Chan franchise were larger budgeted studio movies (later they became staples of the Poverty Row studios). The production values here are noticeably better at least for a thirties movie. We get clues spread throughout the story so that you can guess at who the killer or killers are. This leads to a quickly paced and entertaining flick that clocks in at seventy two minutes but feels like it is over before it started.

This was the first time in the franchise that one of Chan’s children shows up. Here it is his son Lee, played by Keye Luke. Later in the franchise the number “x” son is part of the comic relief but in these early appearances the character is competent and helps to solve the case. Luke does a fine job as always and is a huge asset to the movie. Warner Oland is Charlie Chan and again does a good job in the role. You can almost see the wheels turning as he weighs clues and sorts things out long before anyone else in the room knows what is going on. He plays him as the smartest man there and you believe it.

Charlie Chan in Paris also has the only acknowledgement that I remember of the Pidgeon English aka. the overly polite and mangled accent that triggers many viewers in the series. Basically, there is a drunken creep that speaks to Charlie in an over the top and insulting imitation of him. Charlie basically calls him on his bullshit in the politest way possible, but it is acknowledged nonetheless. I thought that was interesting.

This may be one of the better if not the best entries in the entire franchise. It has been years since I sat down and watched them all so as I go thru this process for the site it is nice to get a refresher and talk about these flicks. If you are looking for a good mystery movie with a dash of international intrigue, then Charlie Chan in Paris is the movie for you. I highly recommend it.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The House of Secrets (1936)

We meet a woman named Julie returning to England via ship from a trip to Paris. She is being bothered by another passenger when a man named Barry comes to her rescue. He is smitten with her, but she refuses to give him her name or even talk to him much beyond thanking him for getting rid of the other man. Frustrated he respects her wishes and when we next see him Barry is in his hotel room in London. A couple of things happen here. One his friend from America, Tom Starr, stops by to say hello. He is a detective on the trail of a murderer. The other is a call from a solicitor who asks he stop to see him the following day.

The remainder of the movie is Barry finding out that he has inherited a large estate from a previously unknown relative. That place, The Hawk’s Nest, is inhabited by some mysterious folks who keep driving him off. The authorities don’t seem to be in any hurry to help him make his claim. One of the people living in the house happens to be Julie, who also is smitten with him, but keeps trying to make him leave. There is a gang of hoodlums trying to sneak into the Hawk’s Nest looking for treasure. One of them happens to be the murderer that Barry was looking for. See how it all connects? There is a big reveal and by the end of the movie everyone is happy, the treasure if found, Barry is wealthy, and love is in the air.

I thought I’d dig deep into these mystery flicks by covering The House of Secrets. This isn’t one of the franchise movies like Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan. Instead it is based off a popular stage play which was a common occurrence in the early days of movies. This makes for a decently paced movie with rapid fire dialogue and many twists. These plays leaned heavily into the dialogue to tell the story and that translates to the screen as the script and in some cases the actors remained the same. All the boxes for a movie like this are checked with hidden passages, secret doors, and a random cackling lunatic/murderer.

The clue... that we don't get to see
The story is decent, though I was a little disappointed that instead of giving the audience the clues as to what is going on we eventually have it explained to us after many strange things have happened. The House of Secrets leans more into the skulking around being spooky stuff then it does the mystery that needs to be solved. Though at times it does seem to tease us with the mystery, and they do have secrets in the title. Part of the fun with a movie like this is trying to collect the clues and making your own guesses, which we aren’t given a chance to do.

I tried to find the best copy of the movie that I could for this review. I wasn’t terribly successful as what I tracked down was a very dark and beat up print. This makes many of the skulking around scenes hard to follow as the actors are almost completely swallowed up. Being an early movie, it also suffers from a lot of static camerawork with long shots of the characters delivering their dialogue. That said I’ve seen much worse and there are some attempts at closeups when they are seated or otherwise stationary. When folks watch an old movie like this, they always seem to say it was boring not realizing that much of what they are noticing is a lack of visual stimulation due to the stationary camera. This comes from filmmakers trying to recreate the feel of sitting in an audience watching a play before realizing what they could do differently with film.

This isn’t a great movie and there are far better contemporary examples of the genre. But I enjoyed this one well enough to give it a halfhearted recommendation. It is only seventy minutes long and is available online if you go looking.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)

The movie opens with our detective traveling to Shanghai. He is responding to a request from a friend of his named Sir Stanley. He is met at the docks by his son Lee, played by the always excellent Keye Luke, and soon is at a banquet being held in his honor. When Sir Stanley opens a box with a ceremonial scroll it is booby trapped and a small pistol goes off killing him. But why was he killed? Did it have anything to do with him telling Charlie he had discovered something that he wanted to discuss with him? Well… yeah of course it did.

Charlie is caught up in finding the killer of his friend. Along the way someone tries to kill him more than once, which means he must be closing in on them. He is kidnapped, there is secret messages in invisible ink, and we even get a case of stolen identity. But worry not as Charlie navigates the twists and turns making sure that the killer gets caught and punished. Along the way he also figures out what Sir Stanley’s concerns were and deals with them as well.

This is an earlier entry into the franchise but already has the formula down. Charlie shows up, we are introduced to the other characters, and then a murder happens. There are twists and turns as you never know who you can trust and who might be hiding secrets. Here we get a fun bit with a secret plan that makes you think one of the innocent parties is guilty, but it was all Charlie’s plan to root out the real killer. The clues are doled out, though I do feel like we aren’t given enough as an audience to play along and try to solve the crime. Then again Charlie Chan in Shanghai sort of plays out more like an action flick and less a straight up mystery. While this would normally be a deal breaker for me, I’ll cut the movie some slack.

Warner Oland plays the detective. As I’ve mentioned in my other reviews, I understand the problems that many viewers have with a white actor playing an Asian character, so I won’t rehash that here. You can check my thoughts on that here. If we ignore that obvious issue and just judge the performance of Oland, I have to say that he isn’t too bad. He brings an energy to the role that livens up every scene he appears in. Sadly, he only did these movies for a couple more years as he passed away in nineteen thirty eight, though between thirty one and thirty seven he did appear as the character sixteen times!

I’ve already mentioned Keye Luke appears as his son Lee. He played this character eleven times, including once in a Mr. Moto movie! Say what you want about typecasting Luke was a working actor and always brought his “A” game to whatever part he was given. Here he is more of the comic relief and foil for the much older and wiser Chan, but without the Lee character these movies don’t work. Luke also got to be the star of a similar series when he took over the role of Mr. Wong in Phantom of Chinatown, which I just covered and highly recommend you check out.

The story is fun, the performances good, and all the boxes are checked. This is a great example of a thirties murder mystery flick. If you have any desire to either rewatch or perhaps dip your toes into this genre Charlie Chan in Shanghai is a wonderful place to start.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Monday, May 8, 2023

Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Dr. Benton has just returned from an expedition to the interior of China bringing with him a sacred scroll as well as the sarcophagus of a lost emperor. When the movie opens, we see him giving a talk to his colleagues while showing footage of the trip. There is a brief flashback of them smashing their way into the tomb before it returns to the present. He takes a drink from a pitcher of water and then collapses, though not before he mentions the curse! Well, that isn’t good.

James Wong, now played by Keye Luke, is late to the talk but arrives in time to see them carrying out Benton. He is friends with Benton’s daughter, Louise, and involves himself. We also see Captain Street show up to investigate the murder. Seems Benton was poisoned so it was murder. Though the pair don’t know each other, despite being friends in the previous five entries. Yes ladies and gentlemen this is the first known instance in Hollywood of a prequel! This is their first case together, which makes sense with the much younger Luke playing the character now. The pair work together collecting clues and fighting the bad guys before the killer is revealed and arrested.

This is a much better movie then the last two featuring Karloff in the role of Mr. Wong. The pacing is solid with the body hitting the floor in within the first ten minutes. From that point forward suspects are introduced and eliminated rapidly until the mystery is unraveled before our eyes. Though I will admit that this plays more like an two-fisted gumshoe movie then it does a cerebral mystery flick. Luke’s Mr. Wong is far more active throwing down in a fistfight as well as running around collecting the evidence. This makes for a much different movie, but one that I still enjoyed. I was very bummed to have watched this knowing that they didn’t continue the series with Luke. Based on Phantom of Chinatown I think it could have been pretty cool.

It is nice to be able to review and enjoy one of these movies without having to deal with the uncomfortable conversation involving yellowface (white actors playing Asian characters). Luke is excellent in the role and while he plays it differently is every bit as talented as the great Boris Karloff. Hell, if you look at the length of Luke’s career and some of the memorable roles he played it this shouldn’t be a surprise. His version of Wong isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty socking the bad guys in the jaw. He even gets a love interest! The movie is better when he is on screen.

Sadly, the powers that be didn’t think that an Asian actor could carry a movie and killed this series. Adding to the cancellation was the fact that by the time this one was made Monogram (the studio behind the Wong movies) had acquired the rights to the Charlie Chan series. Ironically, Luke would appear in a couple of those movies almost a decade later as Lee Chan, one of Charlie’s sons. We missed out on something cool.

I’ve watched all the other Mr. Wong movies before, but this was a first time watch for me. Not sure if it was because Karloff wasn’t involved or if I just never got around to it. Regardless don’t make the same mistake I did. This is well worth a look. I enjoyed the heck out of Phantom of Chinatown and highly recommend it.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Friday, May 5, 2023

Doomed to Die (1940)

This is the fifth movie in the Mr. Wong franchise and the last starring Boris Karloff in the role. The movie opens with news footage of a horrible accident at sea where the ocean liner Wentworth Castle catches fire and sinks, killing many passengers and crew. Then we see the owner of the ship, Cyrus Wentworth, in his office. A few different folks show up to visit him including a competitor, his lawyer, and the man that wants to marry his daughter. Unfortunately, that man is also the son of the competitor, Fleming, whom Wentworth wants nothing to do with. Then a shot rings out and he is dead. The last person in the office with him was the young Dick Fleming, so it is assumed he is the killer.

After sixteen minutes of the sixty-two minute Mr. Wong shows up at the behest of the lady reporter who also happens to be the fiancé’s friend. They don’t think that Dick is the murderer, so Wong starts to investigate the passenger list to see if there is maybe another reason for the murder. Why? Well folks I’m sad to say that this isn’t the kind of movie that is going to share the clues. Wong goes to visit the Tong who let him know that they were sneaking in some bonds to get them out of China and into the states safely and that those bonds are missing. That ends up being the key to the crime. Though we sit thru a bunch of nonsense before finding that out.

I like these movies but at this point it feels like they weren’t trying anymore. The mystery is a nonstarter with the murderer committing the crime from across the hall and then tossing the gun into the room before running away. No nifty gimmick or hard to figure out sequence of events. Hell this feels like a crime that Wong’s sidekick Captain Street of the San Francisco police should be able to sort out himself. Though what really annoyed me is the fact that the most important clue that explains all of Wong’s actions is kept from us until he reveals the killer’s identity. Come on guys we are supposed to play along with you in solving the crime and you just dump the vital clue with a minute left after all has been solved! That sucks.

Doomed to Die also feels very padded with lots of walking around and way too many characters. It isn’t like they are suspects or more victims either. They are just sort of there. That includes Captain Street who pops in here and there to be a buffoon but plays no real part in the story. He is a reoccurring character from the previous five movies so that was surprising. I also noticed that they used or should I say reused footage from previous Wong movies in odd ways. Characters clearly are different in the closeups from those that were there in the longer shots. This feels like a movie that they just tossed together as quickly and cheaply as possible.

This is the first time in the Wong franchise that I can’t recommend it. I’m annoyed that this was the last outing of Karloff in the role and that they made such a mess of it. There is one more movie which I will cover but it stars Keye Luke. I know that the studio tried to make a go of it with an actual Asian actor playing the detective so I’m hoping that it is a better flick. That said skip Doomed to Die. There is nothing worth watching here.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Fatal Hour (1940)

I covered the first three Mr. Wong movies in my last Mystery movie marathon, so I figured it was time to finish up the franchise with the final three. The action kicks off with Wong’s friend Captain Street of the San Francisco police department finding out that his friend and fellow officer Dan Grady has been pulled out of the bay. He was working on cracking a smuggling ring and paid the price. Street enlists Wong’s help in finding out who murdered his friend and finishing the work that Grady started.

We are introduced to some gangsters running illegal Chinese Jade into the country, as well as the nearly bankrupt jeweler who is trying to save his business by fencing it. The closer that Street and Wong get though the more bodies that start to pile up. Belden, the jeweler, is shot as is his son’s daughter who had ties to the gangsters. Even a seemingly random radio writer is killed in the waiting room of Streets office! But who is doing it and why? If I told you that it would ruin the mystery and the big reveal. I wouldn’t do that.

The Fatal Hour is the weakest of the Wong movies so far. I mean it isn’t terrible and does follow the familiar and entertaining formula of murder, clues, solution that I’d expect. But after a quick start the proceedings slow down with lots of irrelevant dialogue and sneaking around in the shadows. The movie is only sixty two minutes long so the amount of padding is both surprising as it is disappointing. Though after about half an hour it picks up again for the big reveal of the murderer.

The mystery itself also left me wanting more. We aren’t given many clues with the big one being revealed at the end. Even then the identity of the killer and how he committed the one crime is a big stretch. Also, with the four murders only one is difficult to pin on the killer which is the best part of movies like this. I want to see our detective explain how the impossible crime was committed and the fact that three of the four don’t fall into that category was annoying. The movie also commits the cardinal sin of keeping the motive for one of the killings vague and then tries to explain it with a throwaway line in the final scene. Come on guys you at least have to give the audience the clues and potential motives for us to play along!

The highlight of the Mr. Wong movies for most is the fact that horror legend Boris Karloff is the titular character. That also brings up the difficult conversation about a white actor playing an Asian character or as it is more commonly known “Yellowface”. I’ve had my say the last time and you can read my more detailed thoughts on it at this link. The short of it I agree with those that take issue with these movies but am unwilling to toss them in the trash and ignore them. Why? Well in the case of this series it is because Karloff is good as the character. He underplays it lurking in many scenes but always present and collecting the clues. I also enjoy that fact that he doesn’t do the pidgin English that the Chan and the Mr. Moto character (played by another legend Peter Lorre) are guilty of. Instead, we get him in all his proper British accented Queen’s English.

Ignoring the other issues, The Fatal Hour judged solely as a movie is okay. As a completist I’m glad that I watched it but would much rather check out any of the first three again before revisiting this one. The mystery isn’t as fun, the pacing is off, and again I felt a bit cheated at not being given all the facts before the killer is caught. I’ll leave you with that lukewarm recommendation.


© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer