Charlie Chan and Film Noir, Part 3

In the first two “reels” of this series (here and here), I catalogued a series of entertaining links between the Charlie Chan film series (primarily the 27 Fox Chan films featuring Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, 1931-1942) and film noir, drawing in part upon my own experiences at successive Noir City’s.

I will close with the two-part core of a more serious argument: B-movie film series like (especially?) the Fox Charlie Chan films can be seen as a bridge between earlier 1930s crime films and film noir.

As Arthur Lyons noted[1], the invention of the double feature (an attempt to lure back moviegoers lost to the Great Depression) led to the creation of the B-movie. By 1935, all of the studios had “formed specialized B units to grind out low-cost fare in all genres—including the murder mysteries, private eye films, and crime films from which film noir was to spin off as a subgenre” (Lyons, pg. 31—italics mine). One “B unit” was headed by Sol M. Wurtzel at Fox Film, which became Twentieth Century Fox in 1935. Wurtzel “began to churn out series films with the accent on crime” (Lyons, pg. 32), including the Chan (a Fox Film property since 1929’s Behind That Curtain) series.[2]

Let us posit, then, that as these B movies began to “spin off” into film noir, studio-contracted directors would look for guidance to existing, successful B-movie series, even borrowing their promising directors and rising stars.  Clearly the Chan series was a success: 44 films were released over a 19-year period (1931-49)—21 from 1935 through 1942 alone, an average of 2.1 films per year, and that includes the Fox-Monogram transition year of 1943, when no Chan films were released.

Also, starting with the Norman-Foster-helmed Reno in 1939[3], the Charlie Chan films became darker in tone and cinematography, echoing the somber mood of approaching world war and stylistic changes brought by the first wave of film professionals emigrating from Nazi Germany. Aspects of the films’ plots also became noticeably more noir.

Indeed, 1939’s City in Darkness (an ideal noir title) is set in a single night in a Paris on the edge of war, whose residents are required to block light from reaching the streets. City’s plot revolves around a war profiteer cynically betraying the French people (including his butler’s soldier son) for profit. Reno, from a story by pulp writer Philip Wylie and featuring Phyllis Brooks (The Shanghai Gesture [1941]) and Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade in the 1931 The Maltese Falcon), includes a woman falsely accused of murder; a plot rooted in a hidden criminal past and resulting blackmail; crime scene photographs reminiscent of Weegee; and the femme-fatale characterization of Jeanne Bently by actress Louise Henry. The nighttime “ghost town” scene in Reno is lit only by flashlights, car headlights and interior lights, and a single candle. Treasure Island, another Chan film directed by Foster, is a convoluted story of blackmail and murder-suicide populated by “two-faced” individuals (many of them illusionists) with stories and facets they are desperate to keep hidden. It opens in a storm-battered airplane where Victor Sen Yung’s Jimmy Chan asks plaintively whether “no one can talk about anything but death;” an existential doom truly hangs over many of these characters. Like Treasure Island, Wax Museum is a dark and claustrophobic film, suffused with stereotypical film noir visual hallmarks—rain-soaked night-time city streets, chiaroscuro lighting, unusual camera angles and jagged frames. Marc Lawrence’s Steve McBirney undergoes a kind of Dark Passage-in-reverse, spending much of the film swathed in post-plastic-surgery white bandages, waiting to exact revenge on Chan, while the plot again revolves around secrets buried in a criminous past. Panama, the third and final Chan film directed by Foster, is a deeply paranoid film with a ticking clock plot device that Cornell Woolrich would have loved.

But I would close with a 6½ minute sequence late in the first half of 1940’s Murder Over New York. Chan, pursuing a late-night lead in the murder of his Scotland Yard friend, prowls an urban nightscape of furnished apartments that is filmed in high-contrast black-and-white, while not one, but two, shadows trail him. His journey takes him first to one woman (an alluring Joan Valerie, presenting a quickly-dropped femme-fatale facade), who, after deft questioning by Chan, admits having lied to police earlier that evening to protect another woman. This second woman—a radiant, but guileless, Marjorie Weaver—tells Chan a harrowing tale of escape from a husband who she realized too late was a dangerous criminal, and whom she still desperately fears. This evocative sequence ends in the office of Inspector Vance (the rubber-faced Donald McBride). Later scenes in a darkened curio shop and on a sabotaged bomber are equally visually compelling.

Here is the complete film. The sequence in question starts at about 20:39, just after Chan sends son Jimmy to bed. Please judge for yourself (you may ignore the cringe-worthy “Hindu roundup” sequence featuring Shemp Howard himself).

To learn more about all aspects of Charlie Chan, I highly recommend Yunte Huang’s 2010 book. And starting in 2006, 20th Century Fox released box DVD sets of the surviving Fox Chan films, lovingly-restored; the special features alone are worth the cost.

Until next time…

[1]Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of FILM NOIR New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 2000, pg. 29. James Naremore echoes these arguments in Chapter 4 of More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition; Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008)

[2] Wurtzel also oversaw the Mr. Moto series. Interestingly, the Chinese-American Chan could survive Pearl Harbor in a way that the Japanese Moto could not.

[3] The first film to feature Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan and Victor Sen Yung as “#2 son” Jimmy Chan was actually the execrable Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), directed, surprisingly, by H. Bruce Humberstone. Humberstone had previously directed three solid entries in the serious: Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1937) and Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937). One wonders if Humberstone was trying too hard to create continuity with the earlier series, resulting in a truly awful film. Even it, however, has a femme-fatale characterization: that of Mrs. Carol Wayne by Claire Dodd.

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