Charlie Chan and Film Noir, Part 1

About 11 minutes into Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), Nayda—a young Egyptian maid—first walks onto the screen. She delivers some cigarettes and leaves without saying a word. “Nayda” is credited to “Rita Cansino.”

Rita Cansino (born Marguerita Carmen Cansino) would later adopt her mother’s maiden name—Hayworth. As Rita Hayworth, she would star in the film noirs Gilda (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Affair in Trinidad (1952).

[Just bear with me for a word about “film noir” status. I have a database of 37—and counting—public/published film noir lists (n=4,312, and counting; details in a later post). Briefly, if a film appears on at least eight lists, I count it as noir.]

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At around 7:20 pm on January 24, 2014, I settled into my seat at the Castro Theater in San Francisco to begin my first Noir City film festival. The first film screened was Journey Into Fear (1943), directed by Norman Foster (Orson Welles, uncredited co-director). Foster already had 15 director’s credits when he made Journey, including six of the eight Mr. Moto films. He had also helmed Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) and Charlie Chan in Panama (1940), three of the best 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films starring Sidney Toler (n=11). Toler assumed the role of Chan when Warner Oland, who had portrayed the Honolulu-based detective in 16 Fox films, died suddenly in 1938. At the time of his death, Oland and Keye Luke, who played Chan’s eldest son Lee, were working on the film “Charlie Chan at Ringside.” The film was quickly repackaged as the 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble, with Luke playing Lee Chan. Interestingly, this was one Mr. Moto film Foster did NOT direct.

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Charlie Chan in London (1934; the film that Bob Balaban’s Morris Weissman wants to set in the country house Gosford Park [2001], directed by Robert Altman, who had directed the 1973 neo-noir The Long Goodbye) opens with convicted killer Paul Gray being visited on death row by his sister Pamela. She tells Paul that, despite every appeal being denied, their friend Geoffrey Richmond (Alan Mowbray—more on him later) has arranged a meeting with the Home Secretary to plead his case. We then cut to Richmond waiting with Pamela’s fiancee Neil Howard. “Neil Howard” is credited to “Raymond Milland.”

Milland (born Alfred Reginald Jones) soon shortened his new first name to “Ray.” As Ray Milland, he would star in the film noirs Ministry of Fear (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), So Evil My Love (1948), The Big Clock (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1949) and The Thief (1952).

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Five days after watching Journey Into Fear, I took the Noir City bus tour showcasing actual San Francisco locations used in such noir films as Woman on the Run (1950), Sudden Fear (1952) and Vertigo (1958). One stop on the tour was the Cliff House, once adjacent to Playland-at-the Beach, the location of the closing shot of The Lady From Shanghai. Inside the Cliff House are dozens of framed photographs of actors and actresses, including these two:

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This pairing is odd in that Luke (left) and Toler (right) never appeared in a Charlie Chan film together. When Toler assumed the role, Victor Sen Yung also replaced Luke as 2nd-oldest son Jimmy (later Tommy).

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The films Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) and Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) were directed by H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone. Film noir fans will recognize “Bruce Humberstone” as the director of the seminal 1941 film noir I Wake Up Screaming (1941), starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, Laird Cregar…and Alan Mowbray (I told you he would be back).

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On the last day of Noir City 12, February 2, 2014, I watched The Shanghai Gesture (1941), starring Mature, Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Ona Munson…and a 26-year-old blonde actress named Phyllis Brooks. A few years earlier, Brooks had starred in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) and Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), playing a murderess in one of them…but I won’t say which. Spoilers!

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The John-Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941) is sometimes considered the first film noir of the “classic era” (e.g., Paul Schrader’s 1971 essay “Notes On Film Noir”). However, it was already the third film adaptation of the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, the first being The Maltese Falcon, directed by Roy Del Ruth in 1931. In the 1931 film, Sam Spade is played by Ricardo Cortez (born Jacob Krantz). Cortez would later appear as Brooks’ love interest (with a Dark Past) in Reno and as a murder victim in 1940’s Murder Over New York (much more on this film in Part 2).

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On January 15, 2015, I returned to San Francisco for Noir City 13. Coincidentally, that year’s festival opened with another film directed by Norman Foster, Woman on the Run, meticulously restored by the Film Noir Foundation. It also featured a key role for Yung, who had left the Chan series two years earlier. Yung had already appeared in the noir films To the Ends of the Earth (1948) and The Breaking Point (1950), and he would later appear in The Sniper (1952) and The Blue Gardenia (1953).

Two days later, the Castro Theater screened Sleep, My Love (1948), co-starring Luke as Jimmie Lin. When, the very next night, The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936) were shown, I posted this on Facebook:

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Not really noir…buuuttt…the first one features Harold Huber and Cesar Romero, and the second features George Zucco. All three appeared in at least one Fox Charlie Chan movie. Also appearing in this festival (so far) from those amazing movies: Victor Sen Yung, Keye Luke, Norman Foster (director), Henry Daniell, Leo G. Carroll, Jonathan Hale, Stephen Geray. Who am I forgetting??

To be continued…

Published by

Matt Berger

I am a data geek, writer, investigator and film noir devotee with academic training in political science (Yale BA, Harvard MA), biostatistics (Boston University SPH MA) and epidemiology (Boston University SPH PhD). In January 2021, I finished writing Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own for which I seek literary representation and a publisher. In Chapter 6: So...What Is Film Noir, Again?, I analyze my film noir database, which contains 4,825 titles. My musical holy trinity is Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway. I am a liberal Democrat who understands a thriving democracy requires at least two mature political parties. I grew up just outside Philadelphia, and I live just outside Boston, where my wife and daughters keep me happy, sane and grounded. Please ask me anything else you want to know.

13 thoughts on “Charlie Chan and Film Noir, Part 1

  1. […] I originally planned to limit posts to roughly 1,000 words, driven by the desire to tell my data-driven stories briefly. Almost immediately, however, I realized that was far too limiting, leading to the awkward splitting of two early posts into three parts: my analysis of the popularity of episodes of the television program Doctor Who following its 2005 re-launch of the show and my exploration of the links between the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films and film noir. […]

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