Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Scarlet Clue (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I managed to squeeze in a short movie last night: The Scarlet Clue, made in 1945 and one of the better Charlie Chan films from Monogram, at least in terms of production values (like it had some; at least one could watch it and not worry about the sets falling down on the hapless actors), a few bits of genuine visual inventiveness from director Phil Rosen (who’d made two genuinely great movies in the 1930’s, The Phantom Broadcast and Dangerous Corner, but then fallen into a level of slovenly hackdom from which he seldom emerged) and a script with real potential that didn’t get realized. Chan was played by Sidney Toler, who hadn’t quite reached the level of desperate ennui of his last few films in the Chan cycle (where it was all too obvious he was dying of cancer, and likely that whatever he was being paid was going out immediately to his doctors) and still managed to toss off the famous Chan aphorisms with something of his old aplomb (and screenwriter George Callahan, though ordinarily as slovenly and hacky as his director, could still come up with some good ones, like the one quoted on the site in which Chan’s number three son Tommy, played by Benson Fong, says he had an idea about the case but “it’s gone now,” and Chan fires back, “Possibly could not stand solitary confinement”).

The plot deals with a radio station located in a building that seems to be a beehive of high-tech activity, since the proprietors of the radio station are also running an experimental TV studio (using some of the same Frankenstein-ish gimcrackery as the TV labs shown in Murder by Television and Trapped by Television a decade earlier) and doing research in radar. The McGuffin, natch, is a super-secret radar device which is so powerful that the outcome of World War II (which was still going on, albeit in its dregs, when this was being shot) could depend on whether the U.S. can keep it secret from its enemies. The manager of the radio station is Ralph Brett, who’s “Anglicized” his name from Rolfe Brant and who’s played by I. Stanford Jolley, a taller and lankier actor than Monogram usually liked for its villains (in virtually all the Mr. Wong mysteries with Boris Karloff from the late 1930’s the murderers had turned out to be portly middle-aged men with thin moustaches, and one wondered if this reflected some sort of personal hang-up on the part of Monogram’s casting director), and he’s in charge of a German spy ring but he actually gets his instructions from a secretive “Big Boss” who communicates only by phone on a special line in a secret room.

The Scarlet Clue — and no, there’s no reason given in the script why it should be called that — opens with a nice scene of Brett/Brant being tailed by two people, who are in turn being tailed by two other people, one of whom turns out to be Charlie Chan and the other an old friend of his, police captain Flynn (Robert Homans). The two intermediate people are two of Flynn’s officers and they’re there to arrest Brett — earlier than Chan had planned, since he wanted Brett at liberty in hopes they will lead him to the secret ringleader — only Brett gives them the slip in a car licensed to radio actress Diane Hall (Helen Devereaux). Diane is part of the cast of what sounds like an utterly ghastly soap opera sponsored by Mrs. Marsh (Virginia Brissac), who resents it when Chan and the police crash the rehearsals and gives the producers a hard time about the awfulness of the show they’ve sold her. Diane is eliminated by a truly bizarre murder method that had its origins back in the Chan series’ Fox days with Charlie Chan in Egypt — a gas in a thin glass vial or (as here) a plastic capsule which is immediately deadly when an outside stimulus breaks the container and the victim inhales it (Monogram had already ripped off this one in the first Wong movie, Mr. Wong, Detective) — but this time Callahan rings an intriguing variation: the gas is actually harmless in itself but it immediately reacts to nicotine to produce a toxic gas, meaning that if the victim inhales it and then lights a cigarette immediately afterwards, he or she is a goner. In case that doesn’t work — and also, one presumes, so he or she can target victims who don’t smoke (but then, let’s face it, in 1940’s movies everybody smoked) — the killer also has booby-trapped the building elevator, rigging a secret switch that makes the floor of the elevator car lift up so anyone in the elevator instantly falls down the shaft to his or her death.

The movie doesn’t have much more of a plot than that, but it’s fun, largely because Mantan Moreland is in it (as is his nightclub partner Ben Carter, with whom he does one of those hilarious double-talk routines in which they respond to each other without letting each other finish a sentence), though it’s not too exciting as a mystery and not the movie it could have been with so compelling a central premise. About a reel or two before the end I guessed — correctly — that Mrs. Marsh would turn out to be the big cheese running the spy ring, if only because she was being so consistently bitchy towards everyone else in the movie, though in one of Rosen’s and Callahan’s mistakes she dons a “horrific” costume (actually it looks like a trick-or-treater’s rendition of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s Red Death get-up in The Phantom of the Opera) for some weirdly ineffective attempts by Rosen to stage a final shoot-out that seems to consist merely of a few bullet noises on the soundtrack without much indication of who’s trying to shoot whom. The Scarlet Clue was a typical example of a Monogram Chan — slow and mostly dull but with a few exciting moments and some inventive plot devices that deserved a better movie — but it was still an entertaining Chan movie even though well below the level the series had achieved at Fox.