During the Golden Age, there were the glamorous pictures (the Gone with the Winds, Casablancas, etc.) and then there were the B-Movies (movies placed lower on a double-bill, indicating they weren’t the main attraction). Hollywood made a looottt of B-Movies. Some of them raised above their (sometimes unfair) status as low budget, poorly acted films and became an example of excellent film-making under a tight budget and short production period. One such series is one of my favorite set of films of all time, the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series (which I’ll get to eventually). There were also films that deserved the scorn from critics and the Hollywood elite. If today’s film is any indication, the Mr. Wong series sadly falls into this latter category.
Monogram Pictures’s Mr. Wong movies were based off the James Lee Wong short stories (published in Colliers Magazine from 1934-1938) by Hugh Wiley. There were six films in all. Five of them starred Boris Karloff and the sixth saw Chinese American actor Keye Luke (Charlie Chan’s Number One Son in that series and Kato in a 1939 Green Hornet serial) take over the part. Luke marked the first time an American film starred an Asian actor as an Asian detective. Luke’s time in the role was destined to be short. After Karloff left, distributors (who saw Karloff as the main draw) lost interest in the series. Luke’s first Mr. Wong movie Phantom of Chinatown (1940) was therefore his last. The last of Karloff’s is what we’ll be talking about today.
Doomed to Die (called The Mystery of Wentworth Castle in the film’s title screen but given the former title everywhere else) follows Detective Wong (Karloff) as he works out who shot and killed a shipping magnate, Cyrus Wentworth (Melvin Lang), after one of Wentworth’s ships, The Wentworth Castle, has a catastrophic fire that results in the deaths of most on board. Wentworth is killed immediately after two meetings. One meeting is with his business rival, Paul Fleming (Guy Usher), as he tries, yet again, to buy Wentworth’s company. A second takes place with Paul’s son, Dick Fleming (William Stelling), who is going to Wentworth to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dick still being in the room when Wentworth is shot (and gun being his), he flees the scene. Everyone but his fiancee, Cynthia (Catherine Craig), and one of her friends, smart-mouth reporter Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), thinks he’s the one who did it. Logan gets Detective Wong on the case to set things right and clear Dick’s name. It won’t be easy with the narrow minded and quick to accuse head of the Homicide Squad, Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers), convinced Dick is the murderer. But Wong knows there is something more complicated going on. Maybe it is even linked to the recent fire or to Cynthia’s mysterious chauffeur (played by Kenneth Harlan) who keeps disappearing and reappearing in Mr. Wentworth’s old office. The film also stars prolific character actor Henry Brandon (whose most famous role may be as Scar, an Indian Chief in John Ford’s The Searchers) as Vic, Mr. Wentworth’s attorney.
A skilled director can work creatively with very little and hide a small budget. William Nigh (who directed all of the Karloff Wong films) doesn’t appear to have put forth much effort in hiding the production’s limitations. Scenes are static, rarely utilizing anything but a stationary camera. Sets are few in number, and the new sets we’re occasionally given are rather used for only a few minutes, so poorly lit that we can’t see anything, or drab and boring.
What particularly annoyed me was the poor cinematography. In one scene, Wong, Captain Street, and Logan are investigating a residence of some kind in, I believe, Chinatown. The building being bathed in darkness with only a vague picture of what’s inside, our heroes try to turn on the lights. The lights don’t work. So they light a candle which illuminates little more than their faces. They enter a room with a dead body. Wong comments that this room is special because, unlike the others, it is more fancily adorned with furniture and the like. It’s just too bad we can’t see that for ourselves. It strikes me as cheap and poorly done. There’s a difference between dark mood lighting and being too lazy to illuminate your sets properly. We see this again in a car chase which is so dark I couldn’t tell what was even going on. All I heard was car screeches and intense music with my only forms of reference being the tiny lights of the city.
I should be thankful for the music in that scene. Most of the movie hasn’t any, even in tension filled scenes that beg for it. I’ve seen films that can be suspenseful despite or because of the lack of music. Doomed to Die isn’t one of those.
As ridiculous an idea it is for Karloff to be playing an Asian, he does act the part without the normal, racist cliches that most other actors did around the same time. He instead treats the role seriously and respectfully. Unfortunately, the makeup guy had to be a little offensive by giving Wong squinting eyes, which Karloff probably had a hand in, as well, to be fair.
The mystery at hand is fine but just that. With three scriptwriters, you’d think the mystery would’ve managed to be engaging, but the lack of music, interesting camera work, and any form of energy kills that idea pretty quickly. The mystery is wrapped up in the very closing minutes of the film. So little time is given to the explanation of whodunit (the identity of which wasn’t all that surprising) that I was confused by the reveal. Wong actually unveils the culprit and it’s not until a few lines after that that I realized he had done so. I also don’t recall if the motives of the murderer are ever revealed.
In short, this B-Movie certainly gained its lower position in the double-feature. Unless you’re a Karloff, B-Movie, 1930s and 1940s mystery series completest, I would stay away from this one. It isn’t awful but it’s remarkably unremarkable, which is probably even worse.