Sunday, April 30, 2017

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

Sidney Toler had settled very comfortably into the role of Charlie Chan by the time Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise appeared in 1940 (one of no less than four Chan movies released that year by 20th Century-Fox). And, as the title suggests, it really does involve murder on the high seas.

The action starts in Hawaii when Lieutenant Chan of the Honolulu Police Department gets a visit from an old friend, Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. A world cruise organised by Dr Suderman (Lionel Atwill) has been marred by murder. In fact more than one of the wealthy participants in the cruise has been murdered, slain by a brutal strangler. Charlie is of course happy to offer his help but he takes a much more personal interest in the case when Inspector Duff becomes the strangler’s latest victim.

Charlie joins the cruise and it becomes a race against time. The cruise will end in San Francisco so Charlie will need to discover the identity of the killer before the ship reaches that port. He expected to be working alone but he soon finds he has a not entirely welcome assistant - Number Two Son Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) has stowed away on the cruise liner.

The shipboard setting serves the tried and tested purpose of confining suspicions to a small group of suspects. Among the cruise passengers there’s no shortage of rather suspicious characters.

Sidney Toler is in splendid form. Victor Sen Yung as usual provides the comic relief, and does so fairly competently and with causing under annoyance. In this movie he actually gets to do a few vaguely useful things as well.

The cast is impressive. Lionel Atwill overacts less than usual this time but he’s still as enjoyable as ever to watch. Leo G. Carroll manages to look potentially sinister as one of the cruise passengers, an archaeologist whose field of study is China. Robert Lowery is a young lawyer with a plausible motive while Marjorie Weaver as his intended bride Paula Drake has a strong motive as well. They make a good romantic couple who might perhaps dabble in murder. And then there’s Ross, played with verve by Don Beddoe, whose languid manner might well conceal murderous impulses.

This film was rather unusual in being based (according to the credits anyway) on an actual Charlie Chan story by Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan Carries On, although I have no idea how faithful the adaptation is. The script is however pretty solid with the necessary plot twists being handled skillfully. 

Eugene Forde helmed a number of Chan movies as well as plenty of other similar mystery B-features so he knows what he’s doing and he gets on with the job with his usual competence.

Fox have provided an excellent transfer for this movie, although the disc is rather light on extras. There are no less than seven films in their Charlie Chan Collection Volume 5 boxed set making it a very desirable purchase for B-movie buffs. 

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise ticks the right boxes for this type of B-movie - it has the charismatic great detective, just enough comic relief to add seasoning without overwhelming the dish, a pretty well-constructed plot and a fine supporting cast. A shipboard setting is always a bonus for a mystery film. Highly recommended.

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