Category Archives: Detective Movies

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) – Murder, Mystery, Opera and even Racism

charlie_chan_at_the_opera_importThere is something very satisfying about a movie that is 90 minutes or less. The dialogue, the action, everything is economical and has a purpose. It is particularly satisfying when you want something for after dinner or during a work week and time is precious. It has a story to tell, it tells it, and comes to its conclusion.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is slightly more extreme in its brevity. It is only 66 minutes long, but manages to tell a complete story that takes place during one night at the opera.

In the opening credits it reads: “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff,” so you have a pretty good idea what the highlight of the film is going to be.

It is a dark and stormy night….literally, while inside an asylum, a man (Boris Karloff) cannot remember who he is and nobody seems to know. But he spends his evenings at the piano, singing some very Wagnerian sounding opera. But when a newspaper is brought in with the picture of Lilli Rochelle, who is returning to opera after having been away for seven years, he remembers who he is and busts out of the asylum.

A manhunt is underway. Meanwhile, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives a death threat and goes to the police, who bring in Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is not impressed with Chan, but soon discovers that behind Chan’s genial smile and polite manners is a mind as sharp as Sherlock Holmes.

It is thought that the murderer will try to kill her during the opening of the opera and that the mysterious man who escaped from the asylum might be the man who sent the death threat. There are plenty of other suspects, however. Lillie Rochelle has been carrying on a long standing affair with the baritone of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). He has a jealous wife, second soprano Anita Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), Lilli has a jealous husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy) and there is a young couple that wants to see Lilli before she starts her opera.


Boris Karloff and Warner Oland

Charlie Chan is assisted in his detection by his Americanized son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who sneaks into the opera house dressed as a supernumerary (the guys who hang out in the background of an opera to create a crowd). He is also more dubiously assisted by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), who seems easily distracted from the clues that really matter.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally considered the best of all the Charlie Chan movies. It is highly informative of attitudes during the 1930s to consider the Charlie Chan movies. Very popular in his day, in the 1980s, many people felt that Charlie Chan was hopelessly stereotypical and called him a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and felt that the character should be laid to rest forever.

There definitely are stereotypes and slurs. In the movie, Inspector Kelly makes several offensive comments, always getting Chan’s name wrong and calling him everything from “Chop Suey” to “Egg Foo Yung.” However, Inspector Kelly is rather a buffoon, so it is not obvious that we are to take him seriously. Oddly, he is playing his racism for laughs.

Regarding the idea that he is an Asian “Uncle Tom” because he is subservient and genial, I see what they are getting at, though it is also a part of his method. He’s pulling one of Hercule Poirot’s favorite tricks, in that by acting “foreign,” people underestimate him; he uses their racism against them.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Also emblematic of the times is that the Charlie Chan character was almost always played by a Caucasian actor. Warner Oland actually made a career out of it. I’m not sure that he ever played a non-Asian role (except during the silent era), even when he wasn’t playing Charlie Chan. Oland was Swedish and somehow Hollywood felt that made him more qualified to play the part. Hollywood has a curious history of casting Swedes as Asians. In Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, he cast the Swedish actor Nils Asther, and Myrna Loy, who had Swedish ancestors, frequently played Asians in her early career.

Interestingly, according to Yunte Huang – who has written a book about the character of Charlie Chan and the real man that the author, Earl Derr Biggers, based his character on – Charlie Chan used to be extremely popular among Asians and Asian-Americans. In China, they made many movies with the character and modeled their portrayal of him after Warner Oland’s. Chan was considered at the time to be a refreshing alternative to all the movies involving Asians as evil criminals, like Fu Manchu. Keye Luke later defended the films by arguing that they should be remembered because they still are great mysteries.

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and  wielding his knife in the fake opera

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and wielding his knife in the fake opera “Carnival”

One fun part of the movie is, of course, opera. I am an opera fan (though more of an Italian opera fan) and there is something about an opera house that just begs to be used as a setting for mystery and murder (think The Phantom of the Opera). For the opera that Lilli is making her return, Oscar Levant was hired to write a pseudo-opera. Levant is probably best remembered for being in films like An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, where he always plays the piano and indulged in his own unique brand of trenchant wry humor. He was a pianist, composer, actor, writer, wit, hypochondriac and good friend of George Gershwin. The opera he wrote snippets of is called “Carnival” and sounds and looks very Teutonic. Boris Karloff is clearly lip-singing in the film as he plays the role of Mephisto in the opera. He also gets to wear one of the most outlandish headdresses I have ever seen.

All in all, it makes for a fascinating watch. William Demarest does his comedy, Boris Karloff plays insane and Warner Oland solves the murders.

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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery


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Murder On the Orient Express (1974)

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-1974“It’s like Clue on a train,” is how my aunt described Murder On the Orient Express during a family birthday party this weekend. After the party, we watched it at her house. I had seen it before, quite a few years ago, and so had my aunt, but it was new for my cousin. He said he liked it, though he thought there were a lot of useless shots of the train riding through the scenery.th1J7428RX

Excessive train shots don’t bother me, though. I like watching trains move through scenery and it adds a sense of ambience to the murder mystery that is taking place within the train, while outside the train becomes stopped, blocked by a snow drift. Snow outside, murder within, makes for a cozy feeling.

The famed detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning from Turkey to London on board the Orient Express. Unusually for the time of year, the entire train is filled up with passengers – eccentric passengers from all classes and ages. There is the Princess Dragomiroff, a British Colonel, a governess, used car salesman, a middle-aged and middle class American who won’t stop talking, a missionary, a Hungarian ambassador and his wife, etc., and a malevolent and very wealthy man named Ratchett, who tries to hire Poirot to protect him from whoever is writing him anonymous death threats.


Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot

Poirot refuses to take the case – he doesn’t take many cases anymore and he doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett – but that night Ratchett is murdered in his bed. The train is blocked by a snowdrift and the man who runs the train doesn’t want trouble when they get into Yugoslavia and he begs Poirot to investigate the murder so that they can simply present the solution to the authorities when the train gets unblocked. Poirot agrees and the investigation begins.

One, important aspect that comes out (this is a plot spoiler, though not an identity-of-the-murderer spoiler) is that the man Ratchett was involved, several years earlier, in the kidnapping and death of the daughter of Daisy Armstrong. The event (reminiscent of what happened to Charles Lindberg) was big news and the man responsible was never caught. After the child died, her mother went into premature labor and both she and the baby died. There was a servant wrongly suspected who committed suicide, and Daisy’s father also committed suicide after his wife and child died. Poirot remarks that Ratchett was responsible for five murders, essentially. And he is wondering who, on this train, was connected to the devastated Armstrong family. There might be more than one would suppose.

Murder On the Orient Express, published in 1934, is probably Agatha Christie’s most famous work, though I read somewhere that And Then There Were None is actually her best selling novel of all time. Christie is also one of the premier mystery writers of all time and her Hercule Poirot appeared in 33 of her novels, as well as many short stories. Unlike Conan Doyle – who is more about the process of Holmes’ detections than about trying to be tricky with his mysteries, Christie is truly one of the best writers at genuinely puzzling the reader. It’s like a game: “Who committed the murder? It was him No, wait…it’s was her.” No one is better than her at providing a dazzling display of suspects, backstories and motivations. My sister was commenting about how reading a Christie novel is to constantly be revising your understanding of what is going on; we are always finding out something new that is changing the complexion of the case.


Poirot confronts the suspects

The main reason I wanted to see the movie again – apart from the fact that it is generally a well-done movie and I love mysteries and trains – was because it contains an astonishing array of stars, stars I was only dimly aware of when last I saw the movie and who I have now seen when they were much younger. There is Lauren Bacall  (I have now seen in her movies with Humphrey Bogart, like The Big Sleep), Ingrid Bergman (of course, Casablanca) and Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going!), though Hiller made very few movies and stayed mostly on the stage. Bacall is the chatty, vulgar American, Bergman plays a Swedish missionary to Africa and Wendy Hiller is an imperious Russian princess. Bergman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal.

Albert Finney is not my favorite Poirot. David Suchet will always be the best (though I didn’t care as much for his less faithful version of Murder On the Orient Express from 2010), but Finney is adequate, if a little hard to understand. He does not speak at all clearly. Agatha Christie managed to actually not dislike this adaptation of one of her books (she disliked many other, previous ones), but she found Finney’s mustache a little underwhelming. Poirot in the book is supposed to have a perfectly extraordinary one.


Jacqueline Bisset and Lauren Bacall

The rest of the cast reads like a hall of fame line-up, if there were such a thing: Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Michael York. They are all excellent in their roles. It truly is an ensemble cast, with everyone getting equal screen time as the suspects, though Bacall is slightly preeminent among them all in her role.

If you like mysteries, trains, classic movies, Agatha Christie, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, are looking for a rare Wendy Hiller in a movie sighting, etc….this is your movie. One of my favorite adaptations of one of Christie’s books.



Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam


Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery


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The Maltese Falcon: 1931, 1936, 1941- Movies of Their Era

th4KX2L17OImagine if The Hobbit were remade three times in ten years. Maybe that’s a bad example. I can’t think of an appropriate one. But The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929, really was made three times between 1931 and 1941…the 1941 version, with Humphrey Bogart, being the most famous and celebrated. What’s surprising, despite the similarities, is how different each version is. You could say that each version is a movie of its time…which goes to show how quickly times change.

Last Saturday, my sister and I had a Maltese Falcon Movie-thon. We started late in the day and kept going, pausing only to make cookies.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a pre-code movie, which means it was made during that time, after silent films, when the Hays Code was in effect, but not well enforced (not until 1934). There has been a lot of recent interest in pre-code era films, which often have a raw energy and morally un-inhibited tone and despite the fact that the depression had begun there were still more than a few shades of the carefree, loose attitude of the 1920s. The 1931 Maltese Falcon definitely conforms to this pattern, but despite that, my sister and I found it a little dull.

It’s fairly faithful to the book, all things considered – apart from a rather silly ending with Spade visiting the Brigid character in prison- and I recognized a fair number of lines from the 1941 version, but it lacked the tautness that I am used to see in a detective or noir story. I think Movies Silently said it best: “They are so busy being naughty that they let the plot stop dead in its tracks.” It’s not that the naughtiness isn’t in the book (or even in the 1941 version), but in those versions there is an economy of plot and pacing, which as I said, is usual in detective stories (when was the last time you read a five-hundred page mystery?) and so the tempo of this version is slow and there was little tension. Perhaps it was because I already knew the story and I felt like the older version had little new to offer.

It is a mystery, of course, but also plays up Sam Spade as a playboy. Ricardo Cortez, as Spade, is constantly grinning in this smug, wolfish way at every woman he comes across and keeps a negligee at his very opulent apartment. The tone of the movie is much lighter, though not a comedy – playboy detective meets unique characters, solves incidental mystery and has fun in the process. The movie did quite well in its day, but was not shown after the code was enforced.

12_satan_met_lady-1024x803The next movie incarnation came in 1936, called Satan Met A Lady. Wacky, oddball, bemusing, in an era when screwball comedy and light escapist movies were becoming popular as the depression continued. Screwball comedy really seems to have gotten going after the Hays Code was enforced. It Happened One Night, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable was one of the first screwball comedies and, ironically, one of the first films to be released when the code was being fully enforced.

When we watched Satan Met A Lady our reaction was a bit like “What on earth was that?” It has been described laconically as a “misfire.”Bette Davis was billed first, but if she had played the secretary instead of the femme fatale she wouldn’t have been in it less, which is either a testament to how significant a role the secretary has or to how little they utilized Bette Davis. I’d had a feeling from the beginning that that secretary was going to be the only woman left standing at the end – she had staying power and ends up with Ted Shane, the Sam Spade character.

It’s a comedic version of The Maltese Falcon, apparently made in an attempt to capture the magic of The Thin Man, which was a screwball comedy/detective story based on the book by the same name, also written by Dashiell Hammett. Another reason to turn the story into a comedy was because the original story – as told in the book and partly told in 1931 – was considered beyond what could be portrayed under the Hays Code.

Bette Davis actually hated the role, which I don’t necessarily blame her for. She didn’t have much to do. Warren William is Ted Shane and he, like Ricardo Cortez, is an inveterate ladies’ man. There is no attempt, as in the 1931 and 1941 versions, to portray any real, or at least strong, love or lust between William and Davis. They flirt outrageously, but he does that with every woman he sees. The Fat Man is a woman in this version and Joel Cairo is instead a very tall and polite Englishman who violently tears up people’s rooms and then apologizes later. And the Maltese Falcon is instead an ancient horn of Roland that is supposed to be stuffed with jewels.

The film was not a success, either critically or financially.

The Maltese Falcon8

And then came the final version, released in 1941, and directed by a first time director who had previously been a script writer, John Huston. This movie seems to me to be a little ahead of it’s times, actually – portending the kind of film noir, anti-heroes, interest in human greed and desire and the sordid condition of humanity that is seen after the war rather than before or during.

It set the standard for movies to come, set the standard for Humphrey Bogart’s later roles and rise to stardom, and even partially set the standard for film noirs. I don’t think there was anything like it before or even during 1941 and I can’t think of much like it later, until 1944 with films like Double Indemnity – a film that is often credited as the first film noir…when people aren’t giving that title to The Maltese Falcon. But unlike Double Indemnity and other film noirs, The Maltese Falcon is primarily a detective story.

I’ve seen the movie several times now and it improves each time I see it. Once I have the plot down, it is marvelous to go back and watch Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade figure things out – all the while knowing what is actually going on with the other characters that he doesn’t see. The 1941 version, unlike the 1931 version, sticks exclusively to Spade’s point of view and the viewer only knows what he knows.  However, after watching the movie through once, it is fascinating to go back and put all the pieces together with fresh eyes. It is also fascinating to watch the actors. You could pick an actor and focus solely on them for one viewing, then pick another one for the next viewing, and learn much about what they are thinking and why they are acting as they are.

Maltese-Falcon-TheSydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. are all marvelous and unforgettable. It was the perfect way to end our evening and I’m so glad no one thought that it was ridiculous to try and get so much mileage out of a mere 217 page book.

If The Maltese Falcon were made today, I wonder what it would be like and how it would reflect our era.

What books do you think ought to be remade as movies…or even movies that you enjoy but think could be even better?


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