Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ellery Queen is on the case
in a fast-paced who-dunnit

The Mandarin Mystery (1936)
Starring: Eddie Quillan, Wade Boteler, Charlotte Henry and George Irving
Director: Ralph Staub
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ellery Queen (Quillan), a young amateur detective and magazine publisher sets out to help his police inspector father (Boteler) solve the mystery of a valuable stamp that is stolen as its impoverished owner (Henry) is about to sell it to a wealthy collector (Irving). However, when the thief is found shot to death in a room that is locked from the inside, the mystery quickly expands and convolutes in deadly ways.

"The Mandarin Mystery" is a fast-paced, locked-room murder mystery that's light in tone and rich on witty banter. While the murder mystery is interesting, the best parts of the film are those dealing with the friendly rivalry between the elder and younger Queens, and the constant flirtations and banter between the young lead and the beautiful crime victim whose skirts he devotes more effort to chasing than to solving the mystery.

This is a charming little film with a decent cast. It's not a masterpiece, but it's not a bad way to spend an hour if you enjoy lighthearted mysteries.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

'The Naked Kiss' is interesting but flawed

The Naked Kiss (aka "The Iron Kiss") (1964)
Starring: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante and Patsy Kelley
Director: Samuel Fuller
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Kelly, a reformed prostitute turned nurse's aide (Towers), finds her struggle for a new life and self-respect negated when she is arrested for murder and past deeds come back to haunt her. To make matters worse, the chief investigating officer is Capt. Griff, the man who was her final "trick" (Eisley).

"The Naked Kiss" is a startling movie from beginning to end. It starts so abruptly that I thought the DVD might have somehow skipped, but, no... the very first image of the film is a sharp-featured woman beating the hell out of a man using her shoe.

The film's approach to such topics as prostitution and pedophilia is equally startling and shocking, because neither topic has rarely been dealt with in such a realistic fashion--the way the romance between Kelly and millionaire J.L. Grant (Dante) develops and turns out is probably far closer to what the truth would be than any other of the various movie treatments of such, with "Pretty Woman" being the stupidest of the lot--and I dare say that few films even now have dealt with the topics so frankly and realistically.

The realism of the film also helps keep the final resolution in doubt. In most movies, some form of "Hollywood Ending" can be predicted from other elements of the movie--either everything will work out for the main character , or everything will be utterly miserable and everyone dies --but in "The Naked Kiss" is so matter-of-fact that one can't help feel the outcome is in doubt until almost the very end.

The film is far from perfect, however. There are some scenes that are strangely, abruptly edited--such as the one covering the night Kelly spends spends at the house of Griff, and the visits of Griff and Kelly to a "gentleman's club" across the river. There's also a scene where Kelly records a song with the little children who are her patients at the hospital; while this scene is crucial for developing Kelly's character and is a key element in the tragic events that follow, it goes on for too long. These weak points prevent this film from getting an Eight rating.

"The Naked Kiss" is a film that deals frankly with mature subjects... and it does so without lots of cursing and sex to ensure an R rating. It's the sort of movie that all those contemporary filmmakers running around congratulating each other for being edgy and for pushing the boundaries can only dream of making.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A hoax turns to horror in 'The Ghost Walks'

The Ghost Walks (1934)
Starring: John Miljan, Richard Carle, Johnny Arthur, Spencer Charters, June Collyer, Donald Kirke and Eve Southern
Director: Frank R. Strayer
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A playwright (Miljan) invites a theatrical producer (Carle) and his fey secretary (Arthur) to join him in the country so they can discuss his latest play. The writer has secretly hired a bunch of actors who will perform the play, essentially hoaxing the producer with a fake murder, hoping he'll be amazed by the play's realism. His plan backfires, however, when one of the actors turns up dead for real and they receive word that a dangerous lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum.

"The Ghost Walks" is a highly entertaining comic mystery that takes the mainstays of the "dark old house" genre that flourished in the early 1930s and mixes it with an Agatha Christie vibe and throws in a "mad doctor" (or maybe just the legend of one?) for good measure. Oh, and these elements are mixed up by several plot twists that will surprise and amuse even the most experienced viewer of films from this period.

This is a fine little movie that doesn't deserve the obscurity it has been relegated to. It features a well-paced script filled with great plot twists, snappy dialogue and a brand of comedy that has held up nicely to the passage of time. While the film has plenty of elements that are standard (it's a dark and stormy night, the characters are all trapped in the house with a killer and people keep dying and/or vanishing mysteriously no matter what the survivors try) it's comic relief characters and the overall thrust of the gags are highly unusual for a film from this period. (Basically, instead of the dippy, superstitious black manservant, we have a effeminate secretary to a pompous theatrical agent, both of whom aren't half as smart as they think they are... but the audience has a great time laughing at their expense. And, with the exception of the psychotically PC who can't laugh at anything except rednecks or Christians being lampooned, these comic relief characters and the jokes around them are ones that can be enjoyed today without that uncomfortable feeling of racism.)

The print of "The Ghost Walks" that I watched was very worn and damaged in many places. All the frames were there, but there was lots of scratches on the film and the image was often very blurry. I suspect that digital video and the DVD format came along just in time to rescue this film from oblivion. Director Frank Strayer was definately one of the most talented people working in independent, low-budget films during the 1930s; I've enjoyed every one of his films, with "The Monster Walks" being the only one I haven't given a Fresh rating to.

"The Ghost Walks" is worth checking out if you enjoy lighthearted mysteries, even if you aren't a big fan of early cinema.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Boris Karloff is detective James Lee Wong

Between projects for major studios in the late 1930s, Boris Karloff appeared as urbane Chinese detective James Lee Wong in five B-pictures from from Monogram. The studio, best known for quickies of questionable quality, the "Mr. Wong" films ended up being some of the best product they ever released.

(They even have the benefit of Karloff's Asian make-up not causing him to appear like an invader from Mars like he did in "Mask of Fu Manchu.")

Here, I cover all five of Karloff's "Mr. Wong" pictures.

If these sound interesting to you, I recommend getting the boxed set from VCI. It's a great way to own all six movies (the five Karloff pictures, and a sixth featuring Keye Luke as the master detective), and the price is right. (And I'm not just saying that because they asked me to write the plot summaries for the films on the menu screen. :) )

Actually, an even better value would be to pick up the "Boris Karloff: Master of Terror" 20 movie set. You'll get all five Karloff Wong pictures... and 15 other movies.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maxine Jennings, Lucien Prival and Evelyn Brent
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a powerful captain of industry is found dead inside his locked office moments after police detective Sam Street (Withers) saw him standing at the window, renowned private James Lee Wong (Karloff) joins forces with the homicide squad to interpret the only clues found at the scene--tiny fragments of delicate glass. When Dayton's business partners start dying under equally mysterious circumstances, and sinister agents of foreign powers start appearing in the shadows, Wong and Street have to race against time to prevent more murders, including, possibly, their own.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a fast-paced, well-scripted, complex mystery with lots of twists, turns, and misdirections. The array of suspects and the way suspicion moves on and off them, the way motives come into focus and blur again, the clever way the murder weapon is triggered, and the way Wong ultimately unmasks the very clever murderer, all add up to a mystery movie that deserves more attention than it gets.

Another element that adds to the film's quality is the acting. Boris Karloff is excellent as Wong, playing a more subdued and refined character than in just about any other role he played before or after, with the way Wong sarcastically offers stereotypical "Oriental humbleness" to the face of the bad guys adding flavor to the character and comedy to the film. Grant Withers as Street is likewise excellent in his part, shining particularly brightly in the scenes with Maxine Jennings, who brings effective comic relief to the picture as his feisty girlfriend, Myra. The supporting cast and co-stars also all turn in top-quality performances.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a film well worth the time a fan of 1930s mysteries should devote to watching it. It's a great kick-off for the series.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Holmes Herbert, Dorothy Tree and Lotus Long
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Seveven of Ten Stars

When a wealthy collector of Chinese antiques, with a list of enemies as long as a phone directory, is accidentally shot during a game of charades, brilliant Chinese detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) immediately suspects foul play. His suspicions are confirmed when it is discovered that a valuable gem has been stolen from the collector;s safe, and Captain Street of Homicide (Withers) shows up mere moments after the shooting, explaining that he was called about the murder 20 minutes before it happened. Wong, Street, and their old friend Professor Janney (Herbert) combine wits and resources to solve this most perplexing case.

The second James Wong film is not as good as the one that launched the series, but it's a solid entry that features a decent enough mystery, and a couple of clever murders (even if one is a bit of a plot cheat).

Like its predecessor, "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" provides a couple of nice changes from the detective flick standards of the day. There's Karloff's articulate portrayal of the character with a complete mastery of English. There's also the friendly relationship and the mutual respect that exists between Wong and Capt. Street, as opposed to the usual hatred and contempt that is present between cops and movie private investigators. Another nice change is that Street isn't a complete idiot--he's a competent cop who knows his job. He's just not as brilliant James Lee Wong. (Unfortunately, Street's intelligence seems to fade as the series continues and the writers guide it increasingly in the direction of a typical Monogram mystery flick.)

Karloff's performance is fine as always, and make-up that turns him Asian is again pretty decent. Withers seems a bit more comfortable as Street; in fact, all the players are closer to Karloff's level than what we saw in "Mr. Wong, Detective." (Lotus Long is particularly good in a small but important part.)

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marjorie Reynolds and Grant Withers
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The famous private detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) takes it personally when a Chinese princess (Lotus Long in her second appearance as a murder victim in the series) is killed with a poison dart in his own home. He sets out to find her killer, with help from reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), the latest bad-choice-of-dates for Wong's friend, Captain Street of Homicide (Withers). The trail leads to international arms-smugglers, shady bankers, con-artists, mute midgets, and tea-sipping Tong leaders, any of whom may have done in the princess.

"Mr. Wong in Chinatown", the third "Mr. Wong" mystery, is a step down from the previous two entries in the series. The plot is not as engaging as the other films, Street's new love interest/Wong's co-detective is more annoying than charming or funny, and Street himself seems to have devolved from a by-the-book detective who simply lacks Wong's ability to see clues in a different light into a typical, incompetent comedy relief detective. That's too bad, because it makes the friendship between Wong and Street seem phony--why would someone as smart as Wong want to spend time with someone as dumb as Street appears to be in this film?

There's also problems with the performances of every lead in the film. The unflappable Wong is almost too calm and detached throughout, and Karloff almost seems to be sleepwalking at times. Reynolds is gorgeous as always, but her character of Bobbie Logan is too shrill in most scenes. Withers does an okay job as Street, but the character is poorly written in this installment, and he really has very little to do.

An unengaging plot, badly handled characters, and sub par performances from the film's leads add up to making this a weak entry in the "Mr. Wong" series. Things start to pick up in the final 15 minutes or so of the movie, and these manage to keep it on the high side of average... but only barely. It still remains a disappointment when compared to the first two movies and the "Phantom of Chinatown" prequel.

Doomed to Die (aka "The Mystery of Wentworth Castle") (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, William Stelling, and Catherine Craig
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Four of Five Stars

When shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth is murdered, Captain Street (Withers) immediately arrests the only possible suspect: The disgruntled fiance of his daughter (Stelling), the only person in the room with him when he died. Street's girlfriend, reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), is convinced the case is not as simple as Street believes, and she hires San Francisco's leading private detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) to clear the young man and Cyrus's daughter (Craig) of any suspicion, and to find the true killer. Complications soon emerge, as evidence of connections between Wentworth, Tong criminal activity, and the mass-murder of 400 passengers onboard one of Wentworth's ships are revealed... and Mr. Wong himself comes under fire from gangsters and killers.

"Doomed to Die" is the weakest of the Mr. Wong features. It's sloppily written, featuring a badly structured story that's moves slowly through muddled twists and turns to a fairly predictable conclusion. Street is written like an utter moron, and Wong solves the case more through luck than intelligent investigation. (He also seems to have developed a mysterious ability to show up anywhere and everywhere the plot requires him to be, even if there's no particular reason for him to be there other than plot dictates.)

An effect of the bad script is that Withers is mostly wasted here. His character is relegated to the role of buffoon. Karloff turns in another decent portrayal of Mr. Wong, but the bad script gives rise to many unintentional comedic moments, all relating to his uncanny ability to appear at windows and on fire escapes.

One upside is that the Bobbie Logan character is a little less annoying in this installment than she was in her first appearance (in "Mr. Wong in Chinatown"), and Reynolds' performance is thus a real bright spot in the film... although her good looks certainly help to enliven all the Wong features she appears in! The supporting cast is also decent enough.

Out of all the "Mr. Wong" features, this is one that interested viewers might safely take a pass on.

The Fatal Hour (aka "Mr. Wong at Headquarters") (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Marjorie Reynolds, Frank Puglia, and Charles Trowbridge
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a common close friend is murdered while investigating smuggling on the San Francisco waterfront, private dective James Lee Wong (Karloff), crime-beat reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), and Captain Bill Street of Homicide (Withers) devote all their skills to finding the killer. Their respective investigations soon zero in on a failing retailer of imitation Chinese antiques, a waterfront nightclub being run by a shady gambler (Puglia), and the obscure connections that exist between them. Soon more bodies start to pile up, and if Wong can't solve the case, he may become a victim himself... and how can Wong hope to catch a killer who can commit murder within the sqaud room of Street's homicide department?

"The Fatal Hour" is another solid entry in the "Mr. Wong" series. The mystery is a multilayered one that's well thought out, and the performances are decent all around. It's not as good as "Mr.Wong, Detective" or "The Mystery of Mr. Wong", but its entertaining enough and it almost manages to reach the greatness that was present at the start of the series.

What keeps this film from rising to the level of the series' best entries is the overwrought nature of the third murder. While its arrangement and solution is as clever as anything you'll find in a Agatha Christie novel, it felt too far-fetched in the context of the rest of the film, and even the rest of the Mr. Wong series. (And this is a series where the murder weapon was triggered by police sirens in a previous film.)

Forgotten Comics: Dark Wolf

Dark Wolf (Dark Wolf #1 - #4, July - October 1987. Publisher: Malibu Graphics)
Writer: R.A. Jones
Artist: Butch Burcham
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

For a millenium, the Lords of Life have plotted, schemed, and conducted unholy rituals--ever since they murdered a dryad and her human lover, using their life-force as the first step to gaining the total immortality possessed only by the gods. Now, in modern times, the Lords of Life are about to complete their task... and only the mysterious, ultra-violent figure of Dark Wolf stands in their way.

I somehow doubt are many copies of "Dark Wolf" still floating around in the marketplace, but if you find any, you might want to leave it be.

While "Dark Wolf" is far from the worst that the black-and-white comics publishing boom of mid-1980s had to offer, it doesn't have much to recommend it. The story and its characters bring nothing new to the table, the scripting is weak and uninspired, and the artwork is amatuerish. (It actually gets worse as the series progresses, so I can't even compliment the artist on the growth of his talent... and that's too bad, because Burcham showed a nice sense of layout and visual storytelling, something which started to go by the wayside in the '80s.) Even the design of the costumed character at the front of the series--Dark Wolf--is lame. He's got Three Musketeer-style gloves with claws growing out of them?! Or, rather, they are claws on the covers, but inside they more often look like ballpoint pens sticking out of the tip of fat-fingered gloves.

Since issues of "Dark Wolf" aren't readily available anywhere, this may be a pointless review. Still, I re-read the series after rediscovering it in my vast collection, so I figured I'd not make that time spent a complete waste. And it does occur to me that those who haven't spent as much time as I have working with the fantasy/horror genre may indeed find "Dark Wolf" appealing.

If it's the first time you've encountered the sort of material within the series, you might find it interesting. Me, I am wondering how even 20 years ago I would have paid full price for the series. I'm hoping I got it as part of a review package, or maybe picked it out of a 25-cent bin at a convention.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

'Woman in the Shadows' is predictable but fun

Woman in the Shadows (aka "Woman in the Dark") (1934)
Starring: Ralph Bellamy, Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Fresh from serving a prison term for manslaughter, John Bradley (Bellamy) finds himself on the run from the law after coming to the defense of a woman (Wray) fleeing her possessive boyfriend (Douglas).

"Woman in the Shadows" is a decent little "innocent man on the run" crime drama with a good script and equally good performances by the three stars and most of the supporting cast. (The comic relief character is more annoying than funny, but that may only partially be the actor's fault.)

This film is nothing spectacular, and the characters and storyline are what you expect at every turn, but it's nonetheless a fast-paced, solid bit of entertainment. It's like a 1930s version of an average summer-time action movie or drama. Nothing's going to surprise you, but if it's well-made you have a good time anyway.