Tuesday 13 March 2007

The Scarlet Clue (1945) Phil Rosen

Strange things are afoot on the waterfront. The police are chasing a suspect but when they bring in Charlie Chan, they find that he's been waiting for the suspect to lead him to a mastermind trying to steal confidential wartime radar plans from the government. Of course he turns up dead instead, but Chan has leads to run down that lead him to a radio station that just happens to be on the same floor as a laboratory specialising in radar.

I'm sure I've seen Charlie Chan films before but a long while ago and I'd forgotten about how annoying Sidney Toler is with his bumbling walk and stereotypical speech. It's enough to realise just how much of a point certain elements of the Chinese American community have when complaining about the Chan films. It's not politically correct to see Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff playing Chinese detectives either but both are great actors who instil a respect and authority into their roles. Toler is embarrassing, often painfully so. He's not inscrutable, he's just acting at the level of Tor Johnson.

However this is far from an attack on the Chinese character. Number three son Tommy is played by Chinese American Benson Fong and he's less intelligent but far more fairly played than Chan. Number two assistant and chauffeur is Birmingham Brown, a lively but stereotypical black former crook who is of course great comic relief material. The worst of all, though, is the radio station cleaning lady, a horrendously Nordic stereotype who can't pronounce the letter J yet manages to include one in almost every word. Ouch.

As for the story, it's almost incidental. The only saving graces are a solid and unexpected death scene and a couple of hilarious exchanges between Manton Moreland's Birmingham Brown and a character called Ben Carter, played by an actor called Ben Carter. They're worth the price of admission on their own, luckily so as there's not a lot else to bother with. Charlie Chan gets a few good digs at number three son but otherwise he doesn't do much except unravel a pretty obvious mystery. Nobody else does anything except fill their obvious role. I hope the other Charlie Chans are better than this!

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