Sunday 24 February 2008


Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Young, Cesar Romero


Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

Norman Foster directed this entry in Fox’s Charlie Chan series and this is one of the best of all the Chan pictures and certainly the best starring Sidney Toler, the man who filled Warner Oland’s shoes when Oland died.

Norman Foster is, without question, one of the most overlooked and underrated directors of American cinema. It’s possible he’s been passed over for serious scrutiny and regard because much of his work was buried within the world of Fox’s second features, but it also might have to do with the rumours that it was Orson Welles who designed and mostly directed (un-credited) the noir classic "Journey Into Fear". While Welles’s influence in that picture is obvious, one can easily look at Norman Foster’s early work – especially his exciting use of low-key stylings – and argue that he was possibly one of the many influences Welles used with both skill and abandon. In fact, one could even argue that Foster’s direction of the noir-ish melodrama "Woman on the Run" might well have given Hitchcock an idea or two for "Strangers On A Train."

Interestingly enough, Foster was also responsible for directing a lot of extremely cool television drama in the 50s and 60s including Disney’s fantastic "Davy Crockett" dramatic specials, "Batman" (with Adam West) and "The Green Hornet" (with Bruce Lee as Kato).

"Charlie Chan at Treasure Island" is an extremely cool mystery set against the backdrop of the San Francisco International Exposition wherein our venerable Asian detective investigates the death of one of his best friends. Charlie’s sleuthing leads him into the mysterious world of magicians, psychics and other eccentrics of San Francisco high society. With the help of Number Two Son (the wonderful Sen Yung) and a magician (played with high camp flair by Cesar Romero), this is a really juicy mystery thriller with many moments of genuine suspense.

This is no surprise. The aforementioned Norman Foster had already carved a successful niche for himself as the writer and director of many episodes of Fox’s other great Asian detective series – "Mr. Moto" (starring the incomparable Peter Lorre with taped-back eyes and fitted with gleaming buck teeth). It’s Foster’s work on the Moto films that might have had their greatest influence on more than one generation of filmmaker.

Foster’s direction in the Toler Chan films really injects life into the series and they rival even some of the better Chan films from the Warner Oland period.

The recent Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (part of Volume 4 of the Chan Collection) includes a full commentary track and a couple of terrific documentary featurettes. The most amazing of these mini-docs traces the potential influence of this film upon the notorious Zodiac killer. Great directors have been known to influence a plethora of psychos and the arguments put forth in the doc are not without merit.


Anonymous said...

Nice review, Alan -- but Peter Lorre did not play Mr. Moto with "taped back eyes and fitted with gleaming buck teeth". The teeth were not false. They were his own. And the only "eye make-up" Peter Lorre wore were a pair of steel-rimmed glasses.

Other than that -- great essay!

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks for your comment Anon. This fine review was actually written by colleague Greg Klymkiw. I'll make sure he gets to read your comment.