Monday, October 24, 2016

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (1939)

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness was the fourth of the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movies made after Sidney Toler took over the role from Warner Oland. It was released towards the end of 1939.

The movie opens in Paris in September 1938, with Europe in crisis over Czechoslovakia. The city is in a state of high anxiety with war expected to break out at any moment. Charlie Chan has been attending a reunion of intelligence officers from the Great War. He soon finds himself assisting in a murder investigation. The Prefect of Police is busy with the preparations for war so the case is left in the hands of his bumbling protégé Marcel (Harold Huber) and he will needs as much help as he can get from Charlie.

The murder is connected with a conspiracy by foreign agents to ship arms to the enemies of France. The convoluted (and almost incomprehensible) plot also involves a young man falsely accused of embezzlement and the efforts of his wife Marie (Lynn Bari) to get him out of the country. There’s a great deal of aimless running about and a sad lack of any real detective work.

Charlie Chan is relegated almost to the status of a minor character with Harold Huber’s character taking centre stage. That’s the movie’s first big problem since Marcel is one of the most irritating and least funny comic characters in cinema history.

The second major problem is that this is essentially a wartime propaganda movie (it was released shortly after the actual outbreak of war in 1939) and this is a genre that I dislike intensely. The whole thing is, like most propaganda movies, preachy and heavy-handed. 

It’s also, considering the fact that it deals with espionage, surprisingly dull. The plot is too contrived to work as a mystery and too clumsy to work as a thriller.

Setting the movie against the background of the Czechoslovakian crisis might have been interesting but there’s way too much leaden comedy to allow for any real tension.

It all ends with Charlie delivering a patriotic speech, always a bad way to end a movie.

Sidney Toler was a fine Charlie Chan but he seems unusually subdued here. I can’t help wondering if he was somewhat resentful that Charlie Chan was being pushed into the shadows and decided to just concentrate on thinking about his pay cheque.

Lynn Bari, a rather underrated actress, is one of the few good things in the film. The other supporting players are mostly adequate.

None of Charlie’s sons appear in this one which unfortunately contributes even further to the film’s lack of a genuine Charlie Chan movie feel.

Herbert I. Leeds directs, with a notable lack of either energy or inspiration. 

The DVD includes a number of extras and they’re as disappointing as the movie itself. There’s a mini-documentary on the making of the movie that tells us nothing about the making of the movie but mostly focuses on giving us some trite and rather historically inaccurate historical background. The transfer is at least reasonably good.

This is one of the worst of all the Charlie Chan movies. Even if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you should do your best to avoid this one.

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