Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (1939) dir. Herbert Leeds
Starring: Sidney Toler, Lynn Bari, Richard Clarke, Harold Huber
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
When Sidney Toler took over the role of Erle Derr Biggers’ Asian detective Charlie Chan from the late, great Warner Oland in the long running 20th Century Fox film series, the pictures shape-shifted into something quite thrilling – for a brief period, anyway. Toler himself was a lighter and better-humoured Oriental dick while the scripts and, in particular, the dazzling direction from Mr. Moto helmer and future noir stylist Norman Foster took our lovable Chan-man to heights yet traversed by this remarkable series.
Another fascinating element to these pictures (with Toler) was their phenomenally revealing window into the hopes, dreams, lifestyles, politics and sensibilities of America during this turbulent and transitional period. The Toler films were especially valuable in this respect since they often brought Chan into more situations involving his family and private life – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, for example showed us Chan’s home, a family dinner and his impending grandfatherhood.
Alas, Charlie Chan in City in Darkness doesn’t quite have the same level of writing, playing and direction as the Honolulu entry or the Norman Foster pictures. It is, in fact, based on what appears to be a rather turgid theatrical espionage piece and overall, the sleuthing and thrills are of a much lower order.
That said, it makes for utterly fascinating viewing due to its setting in Paris just prior to the outbreak of war in Europe. The film begins with a relatively entertaining and informative newsreel-styled introduction, which gives us the political backdrop for the story, and we soon find ourselves with Charlie at an international lawman’s reunion in the City of Light, which, of course, due to nightly blackouts in anticipation of potential air raids, becomes the City in Darkness of the title.
Numerous anti-Nazi references and a feeling of pro-democracy propaganda running all the way through make the picture a real curiosity piece. The film pre-dates – not only World War II itself – but many of the American propaganda films that appeared just before and during the war. (Let us not forget that Conan Doyle’s Victorian sleuth Sherlock Holmes would eventually and inexplicably be fighting Nazis as would Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan and many others.)
Historical and political interest aside, a murder and a convoluted spy story involving illegal arms sales soon carry us along amiably, but rather listlessly. This has a lot to do with the profoundly lackluster direction of the talentless hack Herbert Leeds. However, the film’s primary offense is the fact that Charlie himself kind of takes a back seat to the initially funny, but eventually annoying performance of whacked character actor Harold Huber (as a Romanian detective working for the police in Paris).
There is no Number Two Son and the picture is bereft of other relatives to give Charlie someone to play off of engagingly. Worst of all, the mystery is truly no mystery at all. The killer is pretty obvious from the get-go, at least to me. There is, however, an interesting thing Chan does when he discovers the killer and without spoiling it for you, let us still say that we’re treated to a very unique way in which the detective views the killer with – I kid you not – understanding and respect.
The picture is also worth seeing since Charlie’s character eventually becomes a Cassandra-like seer with respect to certain events that were to follow in the world. Again, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I do want to suggest that Charlie predicts – quite accurately – where Mr. Hitler was headed in terms of his betrayal of other world leaders he purported to respect.
This City in Darkness is definitely shrouded in tired filmmaking, but you’ll still get considerable value from its very interesting political content.