Friday, September 17, 2010

Murder Over New York (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

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

Charles and I eventually ran another movie from the final Charlie Chan boxed set from 20th Century-Fox: Murder Over New York, a late Chan (five films from the end of the Fox series) and one whose non-inclusion of Chan’s name in the title (according to the American Film Institute Catalog, the studio originally was going to call it Charlie Chan in New York but didn’t want it confused with previous entries in the series — presumably the one they were worried about was Charlie Chan on Broadway) bespeaks growing doubt among the “suits” at Fox about the continuing commercial viability of the Chan character, It’s actually one of the better Chans of its era — not as good as the rather hyperbolic commentator Humphrey Fish seemed to think (“there is not one single level that this fails on, not one single level, not one!” — and that’s far from the only exclamation point in his post) but still an engaging mystery.

It begins with Chan in New York being greeted by his old friend, former Scotland Yard inspector Hugh Drake (Frederick Worlock), who’s now working for British military intelligence investigating a case of suspected sabotage in the crash of a prototype bomber built by the Kirby aircraft company, headed by George Kirby (Ricardo Cortez). As just about anyone who’s seen the previous Chans could guess, Drake is killed almost immediately — indeed, one begins to wonder why Scotland Yard inspectors keep befriending Chan given what happens to their life expectancy after that! — and Chan, his son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) — of whom Charlie says, “My Number Two Son, without whose help many cases would have been solved sooner” (Lester Ziffren’s script this time out is considerably wittier than his norm), and New York police inspector Vance (Donald MacBride, playing much the same perpetual exasperation he showed as the hotel manager the Marx Brothers were trying to con in Room Service) believe that the killer was an international saboteur and terrorist named Paul Narvo. So the mystery becomes which of the supporting cast members is Narvo in disguise.

Among the suspects are Herbert Fenton (Melville Cooper), who says he went to college with Drake but hasn’t seen him in years; actress June Preston (a marvelously “theatrical” performance by the reversibly-named Joan Valerie); Ralph Percy (Kane Richmond), a designer at Kirby’s company; Boggs (Leyland Hodgson), Kirby’s butler; and David Elliott (Robert Lowery), a chemical engineer — relevant because Drake was killed with a glass capsule containing the poison gas “tetragene,” which kills on the initial inhalation before it quickly neutralizes itself and leaves a tell-tale smell which Jimmy Chan recognized from a demonstration in his undergraduate chemistry class. Chan traces Narvo’s ex-wife, Patricia Shaw (Marjorie Weaver), who’s dating Elliott and is willing to let herself be put in harm’s way to trap Narvo. Along the way Kirby himself is killed, also with a poison gas pellet (the Chan series was plagiarizing itself here — murder with a thin container of gas that burst on cue was used in the 1935 film Charlie Chan in Egypt and already stolen by writers at another studio for the 1938 film Mr. Wong, Detective).

Chan works out an inventive way of trapping the killer: he invites all the suspects on board the new bomber prototype for its test flight, sure that Narvo will give himself away by grabbing the tetragene pellet (which has been planted on the plane so that it will not go off as long as the plane is either climbing or flying level, but as soon as the plane dives gravity will roll it down and it will burst when it hits the floor) — of course, Chan has already found the tetragene pellet and substituted a harmless one. Fenton gives himself away as having planted the pellet in the first place (with the aid of a couple of corrupt Kirby company mechanics in Narvo’s pay), but Chan deduces that he’s simply a Narvo underling instead of the man himself, and in one of the most preposterous denouements in any mystery film he reveals that the real Narvo is David Elliott, who was dating his ex-wife without her knowing because he’d previously been so badly injured in a car accident that he’d not only had plastic surgery on his face but it had also altered his vocal cords so his voice wasn’t the one she knew as his.

Nonetheless, despite the silly ending, Murder Over New York is a quite well-paced film, long on excitement and with a reasonable action quotient, and while it doesn’t really have any of those quirky atmospherics Lachman would bring to the more weakly plotted Dead Men Tell it is a well-made mystery thriller and it’s helped by drawing on several plot elements from Earl Derr Biggers’ novel Behind That Curtain (filmed by Fox twice previously, under its own title as an excruciatingly dull early talkie in 1929 and as the now-lost Charlie Chan’s Chance in 1932) — the Chan series films were generally considerably stronger when they adapted, or at least borrowed from, Biggers’ original Chan stories than when the writers just made up new ones featuring the Chan character. Still, given that the co-stars in this one include a former Sam Spade (Cortez) and a future Batman (Lowery), one can't help but wish all three of those characters could have teamed up to solve the mystery!