Mystery Collection, Disc 3

The Shadow: International Crime (aka International Crime), 1938, b&w. Charles Lamont (dir.), Rod La Rocque, Astrid Allweyn, Thomas EE. Jackson, Oscar O’Shea, Wilhelm von Brincken, William Pawley, Tenen Holtz, Lew Hearn. 1:02.

Another Shadow movie, but although the actor’s the same, Lamont Cranston’s very different: A criminologist who has a column, The Shadow, in the newspaper and a nightly radio show. He’s witty, he picks on the police commissioner, he solves crimes—and he plays an odd mix of trying to keep the two identities separate and the fact that pretty much everybody knows that The Shadow is Lamont Cranston.

Ability to cloud men’s minds continues to be nonexistent. Quiet and sneaky? Not this time around. The plot has to do with a murder disguised as robbery (blowing up a safe), a just-released safecracker who’s appalled that such a sloppy job is being blamed on him, an extremely upset police commissioner, a cravenly newspaper editor…and an “international crime” that’s a little hard to follow. But the dialogue is snappy, Cranston’s assistant—a young woman who’s the publisher’s niece and really wants to do a great job, but can’t dial a telephone to save her life—is a charmer, and it moves right along. Defects: Any time there’s orchestral music it’s very badly distorted, and there are a few missing syllables here and there. Still, and noting that it’s another short B flick, I’ll give it $1.00.

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, 1939, b&w. Norman Foster (dir.), Peter Lorre, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Field, John Carradine, George Sanders. 1:11.

Can you buy Peter Lorre as a gap-tooth Japanese detective—specifically, one who works with international police agencies just prior to World War II, in this case to assure that Britain and France don’t go to war with one another?

If you can engage your willful suspension of disbelief that far, the story involves a small band of fairly incompetent foreign agents (and what actors!) planning to mine the Suez Canal and destroy the French fleet, arriving for a joint British-French exercise. Moto has a way of getting associates and assistants killed, but manages to survive. Definitely entertaining, frequently a little over the top. $1.25.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong, 1934, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Arline Judge, E. Alyn Warren, Lotus Long, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Edward Peil Sr., Luke Chan. 1:03.

Mr. Wong, an evil mastermind with three badly-dressed murderous minions and a frightened niece, is having people in Chinatown killed to take from them the Twelve Coins of Confucius, which would give him control of a Chinese province—and which, somehow, have all come to be in an American Chinatown. (So far, he has 11—and the twelfth resides with, what else, a Chinese laundryman. Presumably either that, a restraurateur or a herbalist.) The cops and press cry “Tong war” and don’t do much of anything (including keeping a wise-ass journalist from entirely corrupting a murder scene) except come up with lots of stereotypical comments. The wise-ass journalist, also full of stereotypical comments, somehow manages to save the day. Oh, and get the girl.

The good news? The wise-ass journalist is amusing, the plot moves right along, the print’s decent and, other than a continuous background noise level, the sound’s OK.

The bad news? The thought that putting a “Chinese” mustache on Bela Lugosi makes him a Chinese master criminal; the general attitudes portrayed in the movie, the sheer level of stereotyping. On balance, reluctantly, $0.75.

Mr. Wong—Detective, 1938, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, George Lloyd, Lucien Prival, John St. Polis, William Gould. 1:10.

Same studio (Monogram). Same director. Same “Wong.” Once again, a non-Asian in the title role.

That’s about all this picture and the one above have in common. This one’s definitely set in San Francisco, not in some anonymous metropolis. This one doesn’t have stereotyped Irish cops or whole bunches of stereotyped Chinese-Americans—indeed, the title character and his servant are essentially the only Asians in the movie. Oh, and Mr. Wong in this case is clearly highly educated, speaks with a refined accent…and is a brilliant detective with whom the police willingly partner.

Boris Karloff turns out to be good for the role, with a normal mustache instead of a Fu Manchu parody and with no artificial Chinese mannerisms (he does dress in a silk robe at home, but why not?). He doesn’t chew the scenery; if anything, he underacts a bit. He’s well-mannered, soft-spoken and dignified. But he sees things—like any good detective—and uses scientific exploration to uncover the truth.

The plot’s fairly interesting. One of three owners of a chemical plant calls Wong because he thinks he’s being threatened—and, the next morning, when Wong arrives to discuss it with the owner (who has, by the way, just signed a mutual contract by which any dying partner automatically leaves his portion to the others), the owner’s dead—in a locked room, after an enormous red herring of a fight involving the creator of a “formula” (apparently for poison gas). Over the course of the movie, Wong recreates a murder weapon based on very little physical evidence but the cooperation of a nearby university lab; there are more deaths; a highly ingenious trigger mechanism comes into play; and…well, it’s quite a plot and, remarkably, all makes good internal sense.

Negatives: There’s background noise in part, but not all, of the soundtrack—and, well, Karloff is about as Chinese as I am. Positives: Well played, well plotted, well filmed. This was the first of six Mr. Wong movies; unfortunately (in this case), I don’t believe the set includes any others. On balance, $1.25.

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