Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

The US secret services get wind the mysterious German (though that word never falls) spy and saboteur Reiner (?) is coming to Panama, and given the timing with an American fleet to make its way through the Canal shortly, to do something rather dangerous and dastardly against the future war effort. A US agent contacts Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) - who has gone undercover as a merchant in fine Panama hats - with the news. However, before he can give any hints concerning the identity of Reiner, the spy dies from a poisoned cigarette right in front of Chan.

Ironically, it’s this murder method that enables Chan to reduce his pool of suspects to a manageable number of people, all of whom came to Panama City on the same plane; less fortuitously, these are all highly suspicious people: there’s local cabaret owner Senor Manolo (Jack La Rue), a man so suspicious I’m not clear why he has never been arrested before nor why anyone would actually trust him with even the tiniest piece of information, Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers, not even trying to do an accent), a young woman with some secret or other that makes her susceptible to some of Manolo’s wishes, the absurdly British writer Cliveden Compton (Lionel Atwill), Egyptian cigarette merchant and part-time sneak Achmed Halide (Frank Puglia), German scientist Dr. Rudolph Grosser (Lionel Royce) who, as we will soon learn, likes to play with rats infected with bubonic plague, Miss Jennie Finch (Mary Nash), a middle-aged American schoolteacher on the first adventure of her life, and engineer Richard Cabot (Kane Richmond), a man so boring he can’t even be a red herring and must be innocent; also, the film’s romantic lead.

Chan has his work cut out for him, but it will take a bit of time to sort through everybody’s suspicious actions and secrets, to take care of the dead bodies Reiner leaves, and to avoid getting too perturbed by the over-excited help of second son Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung).

I’ve already laid down my thoughts regarding the racial politics of the better Charlie Chan film in my last write-up of a film in the series (or at least the series before the character got into the hands of Monogram), The Black Camel, and what I wrote about the earlier film still holds nine years later, now with Sidney Toler having donned the yellow-face, and the film still treating an American Chinese as its hero. Actually, at this stage, the inclusion of actual American Chinese Victor Sen Yung looks like more positive progress for the series. Despite the character mainly having comic relief (and accidentally stumbling over hints) functions, Jimmy is allowed a degree of dignity not exactly typical of Asian actors in this period in Hollywood – while he’s hapless, Jimmy isn’t hopeless, and he’s also courageous, daring, and clearly doing his best fighting the good fight. He’s also – at least for my tastes – quite unlike a lot of comic relief characters by being actually funny and sympathetic instead of a hateful monstrosity that needs to die but never does.

It helps Charlie Chan in Panama’s case that the script by John Larkin and Lester Ziffren does have a nice line in funny dialogue, zipping through a film that otherwise is a serious war (or pre-war for you Americans) mystery/spy movie which features some elements I wouldn’t have expected of a movie that’s part of that corner of Hollywood that was – thanks to various political pressures - quite squeamish about naming enemy country names at the time.  I find one émigré character’s fear of being sent back to what’s left of her home country after “the invaders” now own it and ending up in a concentration camp quite a remarkable thing to hear, for example. There’s also the film’s obvious surety that the United States’ entry into the War can only be a matter of time, but that’s really the film taking on a (realistic) propagandist role of preparing its audience for the inevitable, censors who fear calling Germany by name notwithstanding. It’s quite an enlightening watch if you care for the idea of genre films as mirrors of the anxieties and obsessions of their times; in this case, the mirror turns out to be quite a direct and political one.

Apart from that cultural historical aspect, Charlie Chan in Panama is also a fine little mystery/spy thriller, as a Fox production still able to avail itself of a degree of production values, and even actually decent library footage, with a generally fine cast (even though I preferred the more charismatic and wry Ohland to Toler’s a bit blander Chan) doing good, professional work, and sure-handed, zippy, and often atmospheric direction by Norman Foster.

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