Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Golden Eye (1948)

The Golden Eye marked the fourth appearance of Roland Winters in the role of Charlie Chan. By 1948 when this film appeared the Chan series was clearly approaching the end of its run.

The early Charlie Chan movies had been made by 20th Century-Fox. When Fox lost interest in the series star Sidney Toler bought the rights himself hoping the films would be picked up by another studio. Unfortunately only Poverty Row studio Monogram was interested (or perhaps in some ways fortunately since it is unlikely any other studio would have continued the series for so long). When Toler died in 1947 Roland Winters took over for the last six films.

The Golden Eye sees Charlie Chan in an unusual setting - in Arizona surrounded by cowboys! 

Chan is investigating a series of attempts on the life of a man named Manning who owns the Golden Eye gold mine. The mine has produced very little gold for many years but  suddenly it seems to be producing gold in prodigious quantities. The latest attempt on Manning’s life has left him in a coma. Charlie Chan sets out for Arizona, accompanied by Number Two Son Tommy (which is a bit puzzling since Number Two Son was known as JImmy in earlier Chan movies) and Charlie’s faithful if somewhat cowardly chauffeur Birmingham.

San Francisco cop Lieutenant Mike Ruark is also interested in the Golden Eye mine although he’s approaching the case from a slightly different angle.

There’s really not much to the plot of this one and what there is would have seemed rather tired even back in 1948. It does however afford the opportunity to have Charlie and his assistants do a good deal of running about in mine shafts providing a certain amount of excitement.

Production values were obviously a lot lower on the Monogram Chan movies compared to the fairly slick Fox movies. That’s not a huge problem in this case. The old gold mine provides a decent setting for the action and suspense scenes. It’s the one moderately ambitious set they had and they made sure they got plenty of use out of it.

Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was renowned for his ability to get low-budget movies made on time and on budget. What you expect from a Beaudine-directed movie is basic reasonably competent no frills film-making and that’s what you get here. Scott Darling’s screenplay is equally basic.

The big problem here is not the low budget, it’s the excessive level of comic relief. Do we really need three actors providing comic relief? Mantan Moreland as Birmingham is very much an acquired taste. It’s a taste that I personally have never really managed to acquire but you can’t fault his enthusiasm. With Moreland handling much of the film’s somewhat laboured comedy Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son actually gets to do a few useful and even moderately intelligent and heroic things.

The problem with Roland Winters as Chan is not his performance as such but the fact that he doesn’t look even remotely Chinese. Warner Oland (who always claimed to be part-Asian anyway) and Sidney Toler could just about get away with it but there’s no way anyone is going to be able to suspend their disbelief enough to buy Roland Winters as a Chinese. Apart from that he’s adequate enough but his Chan is less interesting than the interpretations of the role by Oland and Toler. 

At 69 minutes this movie feels like it could easily have been edited down to 59 minutes. There’s just not quite enough plot to go around.

Having said all this The Golden Eye is not a complete loss by any means. By Monogram standards it looks quite impressive. The scenes at Manning’s ranch give it a more expansive and less studiuo-bound feel than most Poverty Row B-features. It has quite a bit of action and even a surprising amount of gunplay. At times it has more of the feel of a western than a mystery but this makes it more interesting. Roland Winters might look very very caucasian indeed but he was the youngest actor to date to play Chan and he’s spry enough to participate in the action scenes.

If you’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie you would be far better off starting out with one of the excellent Fox Warner Oland movies (like Charlie Chan in Shanghai) or one of the early Fox Toler films (such as Charlie Chan in Reno). On the other hand if you’re a hardcore Charlie Chan aficionado then The Golden Eye is definitely worth a look.

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