Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Murder and a Ghostly Pirate

It's as if the poor woman planned to be murdered!

Miss Nodbury has a treasure map that supposedly leads to a fortune in hidden pirate loot. She makes several decisions that--in the context of living in a B-movie universe--are practically suicidal.

First, to search for the treasure, she hires a ship that was until recently a pirate museum, giving the vessel an inherently creepy atmosphere.

Then she divides the map up into four pieces, keeping one for herself and giving the others to three of the passengers who will be coming on the pirate cruise. None of these passengers know who else has a piece. (Passengers are aboard because Miss Nodbury is making the treasure hunt a cruise. That way it will turn a profit even if no treasure is found.)

Finally, she admits to being superstitious. An ancestor of hers was the notorious pirate known as Black Hook. The family legend has it when one of her family is about to die, the ghost of Black Hook shows up to escort them to the next life.

Well, of course she gets murdered. And of course the method of murder is scaring her to death when Black Hook apparently shows up at her door. Her piece of the map is stolen as well.

Fortunately, Charlie Chan is on board, along with Number Two son Jimmy. And this is the set up for a tight and atmospheric murder mystery. The killer has to be someone aboard the ship--one of the passengers or Miss Nodbury's business manager or the ship's ill-tempered captain. All act suspiciously in one way or another. All seem to have something to hide.

The investigation is made harder when the various pieces of the treasure map begin disappearing (and occasionally reappearing) at inopportune moments. Glimpses of what is apparently Black Hook's ghost lurking about the ship does little to calm anyone's nerves.

This is the plot of Dead Men Tell, a 1941 Chan picture directed by Harry Lachman. Lachman's film career mostly involved B-movies, including five Charlie Chans. But before and after his work in Hollywood, he was a respected painter--a post-impressionist. Dead Man Tell is one of several of his films that show how he effectively used his painter's eye to add atmosphere to a film. The movie is obviously done on a shoestring budget. But the script keeps all the action either aboard the ship or on the docks nearby, allowing the story to unfold without having to spend a lot of money to get it on film. Lachman's skill is on display here--visually, the film looks great, with the fog-bound dockyard, photographed in crisp black-and-white, generating a good deal of tension. The murder mystery itself is a pretty good one, but the movie is also simply fun to just look at.

The supporting cast, as was typical in the Studio Era, is excellent, helping give the story a strong backbone. I especially enjoy seeing George Reeves--a decade or so before becoming Superman--smirk nastily as a supposed newspaper reporter who may not be a reporter at all. There's also a nice touch in naming one of the women aboard the ship Anne Bonney--the namesake of history's best-known female pirate. The name isn't emphasized in the film. It's simply there as an Easter Egg for anyone who recognizes it.

My favorite Chan is Warner Oland and the best chemistry in the series was between Oland and Keye Luke as Number One son Lee Chan. But the Toler films, with Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy, are quite good as well. Despite its low budget, Dead Men Tell is one of Toler's best. Or perhaps it's good because of the low budget. Who knows--perhaps more money for sets and extras would have left Harry Lachman without the need to use his painter's eye to make it all look so cool.

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