Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

It's been about three years since the last DVD release, but four more late-period Charlie Chan mysteries from Monogram Studios are coming to DVD today, courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment's latest CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

I had never seen any of these four particular crime capers - SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, SHANGHAI CHEST and THE GOLDEN EYE - which were produced on a shoestring by the legendary Poverty Row studio, before receiving this attractively-boxed four disc set, but as an unrepentant B-mystery & Chan fan, I enjoyed them all.

SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN (1946) is the best of  this particular lot, and marks the last of the Sidney Toler Chan films to make it to DVD. Directed by Terry Morse, it's a nicely convoluted tale of missing persons, multiple identities and murder, set in San Francisco. Toler is his usual sly self, and with the help of #2 son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), the famed Asian-American sleuth soon has the web of deception untangled.

DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS (1948), like the remainder of the films in this collection, stars Roland Winters as Chan. In this one, directed by Derwin Abrahams, Chan and his aides attempt to solve the murder of the head of a chemical syndicate. The script for this movie is recycled from Monogram Studios' earlier "Mr. Wong" film series, and doesn't quite feel like a proper Charlie Chan mystery. 

SHANGHAI CHEST (1948) is a slight improvement, as Chan attempts to solve a series of murders that, according to the fingerprints found at the scenes of the crimes, appears to have been committed by a dead man. Directed by the notoriously quick William "One Take" Beaudine.

THE GOLDEN EYE (1948) is better still, with Chan and company heading to Arizona to investigate strange happenings in and around a gold mine, the titular "Golden Eye." This Beaudine-helmed entry actually has some outdoor location shooting and slightly less-formulaic plot, and makes a nice change from the other, often claustrophobic, set-bound entries.

All of these flicks are from the final days of the franchise and were shot on very low budgets, with limited sets, very few exteriors, and hastily composed scripts. The pacing in most of them is too leisurely for their brief running times, and they generally lack the snappy dialogue and challenging puzzles of the earlier, Fox-produced Chan films. 

I also don't care much for Roland Winters' portrayal of the detective. It's not that he's notably taller & younger than his predecessors, although both factors hinder my acceptance of him in the role. It's more that while Warner Oland and Sidney Toler each played the Honolulu detective differently, they were both playing Charlie Chan. Winters acts like he's doing a Chan "impression" rather than creating a character of his own. (It also irks me that, for some unknown reason, in Winters' films, Victor Sen Yung's #2 son character is called "Tommy," rather than "Jimmy." Everyone knows that Tommy is #3 son!)

Warners' CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION features all four movies in their own Amray cases, tucked into a sturdy, colorful, cardboard box. Each movie is presented in their original 4x3, 1.33:7 Academy aspect ratio, and are transferred from astoundingly clean prints. Picture quality is generally excellent, with good contrast, solid blacks, and virtually no distracting scratches, specks or other print damage. Audio is equally satisfactory, presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono with nary a pop or hiss to be heard. There are no supplements or bonus material provided.

For Charlie Chan completists, the set is an essential purchase, and fans of Forties B-movie mysteries should enjoy it too. As I said, these are from the late period of the long-running series and do not measure up to many of the earlier installments in terms of production value or story. But they're still entertaining, and the impoversished productions do have their own simple charms. Recommended.

BUYCharlie Chan: Collection