Saturday, January 3, 2009


The first of crime author Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong detective murder-mysteries that Collier’s Magazine published in the 1930s starred horror sensation Boris Karloff as the famous Asian sleuth. “Mysterious Mr. Wong” director William Nigh and “Tiger Shark” author Houston Branch establish San Francisco as the setting immediately with a long shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. This tightly knitted thriller about a thinly disguised group of Hitler’s Third Reich agents trying to sabotage the shipment of poison gas to Stalin’s Soviet Union qualifies as crack jack entertainment with strong performances and a minimum of buffoonery as well as anti-Chinese ideology that Nigh employed in his earlier “Mr. Wong” epic. Indeed, many complain “Mr. Wong, Detective” (*** out of ****) dawdles, but at 69 minutes, this splendid little melodrama maintains a snappy pace, and the dialogue isn’t half bad. Monogram Studios lavished better production values for this B-picture. Consider the detail that the studio went to dress Mr. Wong’s residence. Of course, this studio bound yarn confines its action in rooms where either the police question the suspects or Mr. Wong meets with them a social basis. Occasionally, as in the beginning when a thug surveys a dockyard or when a character pulls up to Wong’s house in a chauffeur driven car, “Mr. Wong, Detective” ventures outside, but not often.

One of the few exteriors (more like a sound stage) occurs in the opening minutes as Lescardi, (Frank Bruno) Mohl's Henchman, hides in a warehouse at the dock and spots a crate stamped with Dayton’s Chemicals. Later, he warns Anton Mohl (Lucien Prival) at his apartment after climbing down from the higher apartment to avoid detection. “If those chemicals fall into the hands of our enemies, we’re though,” Mohl snaps. “That ship has got to be stopped.” Meanwhile, a flustered Simon Dayton (John Hamilton) visits Mr. Wong at his residence late one foggy night. A friend recommended Wong to Dayton. Dayton explains his life is in danger. “I’m just convinced that somebody’s out to get me. I tell you it’s driving me crazy. I haven’t any case,” he tells Wong. Dayton, it seems, has arranged to ship a load of chemicals abroad, but he has experienced setbacks. Factory delivers have been held up; railroad shipments damaged, and ships withdrawn that he’d chartered. He explains his office has been entered, its contents rifled several times. “I can’t give you a single clue,” he says in frustration. “I must have help or I’ll lose my mind,” he pleads. Wong agrees to meet him the next morning. No sooner does Dayton leave than he is almost kidnapped when Lescardi pulls up, posing as his chauffer driver, but Dayton refuses to get into the car. Wong and he find his chauffer in the bushes nearby with blood on his head.

The following day, Dayton summons San Francisco Police Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) after the disgruntled chemical inventor, Carl Roemer (John St. Polis) storms into his company office and demands to be paid for his formula. Street and his men arrive at Dayton Chemicals and spot Dayton standing at the wind. After they question Roemer, they find Dayton’s office door locked and discover Dayton dead on the floor. Roemer was carrying a gun, but it was empty. Moments later Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) shows up and finds glasses shards in Dayton’s office. Wong visits a friend with a lab and they construct a replica of the glass globe that contained the poison gas that killed Dayton. Street’s initial suspects are Roemer and Dayton’s partners, Theodore Meisel, (William Gould) and Christian Wilk (Hooper Atchley), but they are all cleared.

Not only is Anton Mohl, aka Baron Von Krantz desperate to stop the ship from leaving San Francisco with the chemical weapons, but he also wants to obtain the formula. Wong learns that only a high pitched noise can destroy the tiny glass globes that contain the poison. He tries a variety of musical instruments, but it is his parrot that cracks it with its sound. Not long afterward, Wilk dies under similar circumstances as Dayton. He was alone in his room, with the door locked, and a group of people were outside. Street is really frustrated and believes that the surviving partner Meisel is the guilty party. Just before Wilk is poisoned, Wong meets the undercover German agents (of course, the studio could not acknowledge their heritage because the Production Code Administration forbade Hollywood filmmakers from portraying foreign nationals in a derogatory light), and Wong spots Olga Petroff’s special blend of cigarette that he found in Dayton’s stolen car.

Mohl plans to kill Wong, but not before Meisel appears to have committed suicide with a glass globe. The police release Roemer and his wife, but Wong wants Street to bring the chemist to his home. No sooner does Wong arrive at his own place than Lescardi, Anton, and Olga corner him and demand the formula. He produces one of the replicas and crushes it and fools the villains into believing that they are dying for poison gas. Street arrives with Roemer and arrests the German agents.

Director Nigh and his writer Branch have constructed a clever scenario here and you will probably figure out how the victims die even when people are standing around outside their doors. Reportedly, the same device was used in “Charlie Chan in Egypt.” The police are treated like incompetent buffoons, with Street constantly losing his temper at the twists and turns that the case takes, albeit he looks like a precursor to the 1980s TV police superior who constantly shouts at the hero. Red herrings fly like confetti. The last person you expect as the murder is actually the last man you’d expect. Naturally, Karloff is a British citizen miscast as an Asian and Asian are used for comic relief. All in all, “Mr. Wong, Detective,” with its industrial espionage plot clearly involving Germans and Soviets, is a lot of fun for a low-budget B-movie.

Altogether, Boris Karloff made five “Mr. Wong” features: “Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938), “The Mystery of Mr. Wong” (1939), “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” (1939), “The Fatal Hour” (1940), and “Doomed to Die.”

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