Friday, September 10, 2010

Dead Men Tell (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

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

Afterwards I ran Charles the next film in sequence in the volume five boxed set of Charlie Chan movies from 20th Century-Fox, Dead Men Tell — a spookier title for a spookier movie than the norm for this series, and one in which Chan (Sidney Toler) sometimes seems to be a bystander in his own vehicle. It was released on the same date (March 28, 1941) as the Universal “B” Horror Island, and it has the same plot premise: an entrepreneur has booked a ship and has announced that they’re selling tickets to a cruise to a deserted island that supposedly was a hideout for pirates in the old days and has $6 million worth of buried treasure — only this time the ship is a sailing vessel instead of a motorized fishing boat, and the thrills come from the mysterious murders of two of the people aboard, Miss Patience Nodbury (Ethel Griffies) and Bill Lydig (an almost unrecognizable George Reeves — anyone expecting Superman to team up with Chan to solve the mystery would be sorely disappointed).

Chan gets into the action when his Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) stows away aboard the ship — which, unlike the one in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, never leaves the dock — and the main thing I remembered from having seen the movie before is a preposterous dock set in which at least two of the doorways open straight onto a multi-story drop to the water (needless to say, Jimmy Chan takes no fewer than four headers into the briny over the course of the movie). The best aspect of this film is the direction by Henry Lachman, a Fox workhorse who seemed relegated to the “B”’s except for one genuinely good “A” he made in 1935 just before the 20th Century-Fox merger: Dante’s Inferno, which starred Spencer Tracy as a proletarian who rises to gambling entrepreneur and also marked the official screen debut of Rita Hayworth (though it was in production for so long two other movies she’d shot later, including Charlie Chan in Egypt, got released first). Aided by the chiaroscuro cinematography of Charles G. Clarke (a more prestigious name than one usually sees on a “B”), Lachman gives us oddly cropped screen-filling closeups shot in a surprisingly Wellesian manner, and his offbeat angles and lighting propel us into the action even though there’s not much action to be propelled into.

It’s one of those mysteries with a dizzying series of red herrings and a denouement that makes absolutely no sense — one gets the impression writer John Larkin just wrote all the names of his characters on slips of paper, posted them onto a billboard, threw a dart at them and whichever name the dart hit was the one he made the murderer. Lachman also directed the next Charlie Chan film, Charlie Chan in Rio, which I had already commented on and I recall as a much better film than this, probably because it came from an actual Earl Derr Biggers Chan story, The Black Camel, instead of a concoction from the 20th Century-Fox writers’ building — even though there was a how-the-mighty-have-fallen aspect to it in that Hamilton MacFadden, who had directed the superb original version of The Black Camel in 1931 (with Warner Oland as Chan, his second film in the role and the only one of his first five which survives) and also directed the 1934 musical Stand Up and Cheer which made Shirley Temple a star, was reduced to acting in Charlie Chan in Rio in a character role.