Monday, September 20, 2010

Castle in the Desert (20th Century-Fox, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I finished the last Charlie Chan Fox box with Castle in the Desert, the studio’s last Chan movie (1942) and a surprisingly strong finish for the series — especially in an era when movie series usually petered out in pathetically weak episodes that just rehashed the central premises of earlier ones, to diminishing effect.

Directed by Harry Lachman (their go-to guy for Chan films by the end — of the seven movies in the final Fox box, Lachman directed four) from a script by John Larkin, Castle in the Desert benefits from a basis in one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Chan novels, The Chinese Parrot, instead of a story concocted by the studio — and also from a quite strong cast from Hollywood’s cadre of character actors: Douglass Dumbrille as Paul Manderley (a name clearly inspired by the success of Rebecca two years earlier), an expert on the Borgias who’s writing a biography of Cesare Borgia and has built himself a castle in the desert that’s so isolated it lacks electricity and a telephone (both modern conveniences he has eschewed so he can decorate it in medieval style and really live the Borgias’ era — though he’s still dressed in modern clothes instead of those of Renaissance Venice); Lenita Lane as his wife, Lucretia Borgia Manderley — yes, like the lead characters in The Florentine Dagger, she’s supposed to be a modern-day descendant of those Borgias (and I couldn’t help but wonder if Biggers and Florentine Dagger author Ben Hecht thought of the idea independently and, if not, who influenced whom!); Henry Daniell as antiques dealer Watson King, who’s really a federal agent and is really really [spoiler alert!] the villain of the piece; Ethel Griffies as a nutty pseudo-spiritualist who keeps claiming to predict the deaths of the other characters; Steven Geray as Dr. Retling, Paul Manderley’s personal physician; and the marvelously queeny Milton Parsons (later a regular in RKO’s short-lived Dick Tracy series) as private detective Arthur Fletcher, one of the murder victims — only he really isn’t; he’s been given a drug that only makes him appear dead (“the drug Friar Laurence gave Juliet,” Daniell’s character helpfully — or maybe not so helpfully — explains).

When antiquities expert Professor Gleason (Lucien Littlefield) drops dead at the Manderley castle, and is later found to be poisoned, Paul’s staff has the corpse sneaked out of the house and dumped in the nearby village hotel (whose owner and staff are as afraid of the castle as their counterparts were in Dracula) — and when Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) shows up no one will drive him out there except for a private cabbie in a station wagon who charges him $25 (in 1942 dollars!) and still won’t go any nearer than two miles away. (Paul’s worried about being caught up in a scandal because under his father’s will, that would give the executors of his estate an excuse to have his $25 million fortune taken away from him — and he’s also shown through most of the film with a triangular mask over half his face, supposedly hiding the scars from a car accident, though towards the end Chan cuts off the mask and his face is normal underneath it.)

While Castle in the Desert makes us regret all the more the loss of the earlier version of the story, filmed under Biggers’ title by Universal in 1928 and directed by Paul Leni with Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin as Chan (maybe he wasn’t Chinese, but he was at least Asian!) — given Leni’s flair for old-dark-house stories in The Cat and the Canary that was probably an excellent film — and it also makes us almost too aware that Biggers’ most famous piece of non-Chan writing was the original story source for Seven Keys to Baldpate — it’s still an engaging piece of work, effectively directed by Lachman, who uses some of the eccentric camera angles he’d also brought to Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and gets marvelous Gothic cinematography out of Virgil Miller, whose beautiful chiaroscuro images are a far cry from the straightforward lighting most mystery films got in the pre-noir era. I’d always assumed that Fox stopped making Chan films simply because they thought the series was played out — on this one they not only left Chan’s name out of the title but replaced the standard credit design of previous Chan-series entries with a completely different typeface and set of graphics (and Sidney Toler’s below-the-title opening credit did not specify that he was playing Chan!), but one contributor said it was because Fox was cutting back production due to World War II. Whatever the reason, Fox at least took this series out with a bang; Castle in the Desert is one of the best Fox Chans with Toler and a welcome finish to the studio’s 13 years’ worth of Chan films.