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Phantom of Chinatown (DVD)

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Genre: Crime & Thriller / Theatrical Release: 1940 / Director: Phil Rosen / Actors: Keye Luke, Grant Withers, Lotus Long, Charles F. Miller, Huntley Gordon ... / DVD released 2003-03-18 at Alpha Video / Features of the DVD: Black & White, DVD-Video, NTSC

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      21.07.2009 10:47
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      Enjoyable old whodunnit starring 'Number One Son'

      Starring:
      Keye Luke as James Lee Wong
      Grant Withers as Street
      Charles F Miller as Dr Benton
      Lee Tung Foo as Foo

      If you like the old Charlie Chan movies, you may find this 1940 murder mystery an interesting and fun watch. As a huge Charlie Chan fan myself, I enjoyed this old film particularly for its starring appearance of Keye Luke, who of course was 'Number One Son' Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan movie series (as well as, in much later years, the old guy Master Po in the 1970s 'Kung Fu' TV series who was always saying 'Ah, Grasshopper!').

      Here he plays the lead role, as young criminologist James Lee Wong, complete with pencil moustache which makes him look maybe a bit sinister (or maybe just more grown-up). Wong has to help (together with a bumbling police detective, Street) solve the mystery of who poisoned the drinking water that killed eminent archaeologist Dr John Benton in the middle of giving a lecture.

      We start out watching Dr Benton give the afore-mentioned lecture, which he illustrates with movie footage of his latest expedition which involved searching for ancient artefacts in the Mongolian desert. He and his team had discovered, in a range of uninhabited mountains, an ancient emperor's tomb that had not been accessed for two thousand years.

      He explains, 'Our Chinese bearers had warned us of a curse on the tomb. I can't say yes to that, I only know that our troubles began from that moment.' A violent windstorm wrecked their camp and one of their party was lost in the storm. The Chinese bearers became frightened that this was the manifestation of the curse, and Dr Benton was forced to make the reluctant decision to abandon the expedition and return home. Dr Benton pauses from his recollections to pour a glass of water from the pitcher on his podium and takes a drink. He resumes his speech, but is suddenly taken ill and collapses.

      Having been transported to his bed, Dr Benton shuffles off this mortal coil, his last words being some mutterings about 'eternal fire' which no one is able to explain. A search of his house discloses that an important ancient scroll that Dr Benton found in the emperor's tomb has gone missing from its locked cupboard. The bumbling, inept and dozy Detective Street arrives and finds the whole situation exasperating and too baffling for his apparently pretty limited levels of deduction.

      So, Wong, as a friend of the family, decides to pitch in and help look into all this, despite some scepticism and resentment from an indignant Detective Street. And then another spanner in the works comes to light: the expedition member who went missing presumed dead in the storm. There are now indications that he may in fact have survived; if so, where is he, why didn't he contact anyone from Dr Benton's team to let them know he was all right, and what's he up to?

      This is a good little old school murder mystery and I really enjoyed seeing Keye Luke pull off his first leading role. He plays this distinguished character with much authority and poise as well as likeability. As much as I like Boris Karloff, who played Wong in the rest of the films of this series (this was the last of a series of six), I find Luke much more convincing in the role, not least because he's a real Oriental playing the role of this Chinese detective! In fact, as far as I know, this film marks the first time a lead Oriental role was played by an Oriental actor rather than by a Caucasian actor, so is pretty historically noteworthy in that respect.

      Wong is portrayed as a very sage and philosophical type of character who gets to say such nifty lines as, in apology for making a phone call late one night to ask an elder of the Chinese community for any useful information he may have, 'Only the eyebrows of youth would have the temerity to call the beard of age at such an hour'. He is in some ways sort of like a young Charlie Chan, which is quite endearing for us Chan movie fans.

      In his everyday homelife, Wong also has to contend with his sarcastic cook Foo, who is sort of like Kato to Inspector Clouseau in the old 'Pink Panther' movies, except with derisive comments rather than karate chops, and who enjoys being a pain and nagging Wong to eat his meal. It's a cute bit of comedy relief and I do wonder if this may have been the inspiration for the Kato-Clouseau relationship!

      I found this an intriguing murder mystery with a good plot and unexpected ending, and while not a real classic, it's an enjoyable time-passer that is well worth viewing. Cinematography and direction are average, this being more of a B movie than a big feature film, but a good example of one. Script, plot and acting are all fairly respectable and the overall effect is of a decently-made low budget film.

      This film has fallen into public domain and my print, which originated from a public domain film archive, is rather dark, so dark in a few places that it's hard to make out what's going on. Hopefully this DVD version listed here will be an improvement on this!

      Also on Ciao.

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