Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 5 - Doomed to Die (1940)

Staring down the prospect of writing and blogging about Doomed to Die, I fear the same sort of apathy which shattered my meager efforts to opine on the former Fatal Hour. There are a few facts (that is to say, one single fact) to pique interest: Though not quite the last in the series (there’s one more), this is Boris Karloff’s final outing as the plot-resolving Mr. James Lee Wong – a Wong swan song. I wish that filled me with some emotion, any emotion, but it’s surprising just how neutral Karloff has been as the titular detective. I don’t know what to attribute that to, the films’ strident and unusual effort to avoid racism, Monogram’s one-take refusal to ever make a movie remotely beyond barely adequate, or simply an apathy on Karloff’s part which rivals my own. The fact is that here he is at his end, with a far awesomer career surrounding him on all sides…Hell, maybe it was just contracts keeping Karloff around for as many lackluster entries as he did.

So, in light of the challenge which Doomed to Die poses to my icy soul, I shall “live blog it,” as it were, and let my initial reactions form what ultimately makes its way online – An old fallback of mine, when inspiration fails, and something I almost always hate doing (last use: Disaster Movie).

First, let us ignore the opening titles, which reveal nothing, and revel in uncharacteristically stereotypical “Oriental” music. La la la la la…

Okay, movie’s on! Stock footage of a ship segues to stock footage of newspapers flying at us (a common aviation hazard in 1940) to warn of a ship-borne inferno. For a bit of exposition, this is clever enough, even leaning upon Monogram’s loony love of midgets.

Now offices, set-bound boredom replacing stock footage zaniness. The movie’s too quick for me, rushing through three character intros (complete with back story, role, personality, everything, so they never need bother with it again), all in the time it takes me to type up “three.” Let’s see, there’s an attorney Victor Martin (Henry Brandon), the besuitedly bland Matthews (Wilbur Mack), and Wentworth (Melvin Lang), the grand poobah of the bunch – who is the likeliest party for first act murder.

The movie continues to unspool speedily, but sans interest, as I take the time needed to take screen caps…As we learn that Wentworth, apart from being a businessman with a murder-baiting will, also has an inevitable-love-interest daughter Cynthia (Catherine Craig). There’s some exposition which hints, obliquely, at the Manhattan Project – surely Monogram’s typewriter simians didn’t know of this by ’40, but this prediction reflects the increasing wartime concern of the era.

Now a similarly suited Cyrus is here (Melvin Lang), to brag with Wentworth about the shipping business – I recall my habit of exceptional wordiness when keyboard-narrating movies, so it’s time to slow down a bit, maybe read a few online articles while doing this too. [Dur de dur…] Oh, here’s Ted! – And by “Ted” I mean “Dick,” because old movies have muddled dialogue often. Dick is either Wentworth’s son-in-law, or his actual son, and I hope it’s the former, because he’s actively seeking Cynthia’s hand in marriage – yup, there’s the standard Young Lover Couple right there – Where’s Wong?! I demand death!

Okay, this is how these mysteries go: Basically every suspect is mad at every other, specifically mad at Wentworth, who’s gone and – No, wait, Cyrus is the murder victim! That’s a surprise! (Small miracles.) “He’s dead.” Dialogue!

Cynthia’s introduction occurs alongside the return of recurring character “Bobbie” Johnson (Marjorie Reynolds), the damn best thing about these movies – channeling just the slightest hint of screwball energy into these more anemic mysteries. And – that scene didn’t last long. I fear this’ll be the way with Bobbie.

Crime scene, now it’s Bill Street’s (Grant Withers) reintroduction, he the series’ secret main character – more than ever now in this epic example of Wonglessness. Street oversees the investigation with his characteristic incompetence, habitually selecting the male half of the Young Lover Couple as el suspecto numero uno – thus Dick is arrested in a random, stylish unrelated scene.

At the station, Street plays with his shackled Dick, trying to agitate Dick so that Dick might spit forth information. Bobbie is there. Wow, there is nothing of note so far, I’d have nothing to say without this stream-of-consciousness approach to lean upon – only Wong’s continued nonexistence is worth noting, but the character is enough of a blank slate for it to not even matter. Nearly twenty minutes in… (Of 67.)

No wait, here is Wong!

I guess it’s a good thing Wong arrived when he did, because the plot was spiraling helplessly out of control – Wong insists that opening stock footage ship indeed had some pertinence. Furthermore, a few of the poor drowned souls aboard it were Chinese, which in this franchise is always a functional substitute for a genuine clue.

Chineseness being enough, Wong is off to Chinatown, a bi-entry sojourn, owing to Monogram’s limited sets – such as the same apothecary store and tong hideout (though as a sequel, set repetition is excusable, as it is the same setting). Tongs and Wong review potential leads, what with secret missions and whatnot and – Okay, I’m hungry! Time to let the movie unspool in silence while I go and procure some microwaveable taquitos…

While those delicious morsels cook up, nothing new to report on the movie end. Tongs prong Wong – with violence – leading to a stock footage car chase and – My food is ready!

There’s actual gunfire and blood and crashing cars all about, which is rather closer to the late ‘40s Monogram I’m more familiar with. I – [eat eat eat!] – appreciate this approach, this is nonsensical, but is something Monogram can do to overcome the shallow characters, the inconsequential plot, the general disposability. And with that scant uptick in energy, Karloff actually gets a subtle laugh line – something closer to the Karloff one pictures headlining a detective series.

A scene away from Wong, Street or Bobbie, back to Wentworth’s scheming (concerning Cyrus’ presumed suicide, which hasn’t really been stated clearly yet). This isn’t worth commenting upon. [Eat eat eat!]

Eventually our central trio barges upon the scene, to trade further expository info. Surprise surprise, even in this writing approach, I find I cannot commit to actually listening to this mess. I do not care about how Dick relates to Wentworth and the rest, this being the sort of narrative complexity which is hard to present cinematically – an ongoing struggle of period mysteries. Arghh! There’s some effort at using Dick’s obvious innocence to draw us along emotionally, but he is just a tool for pure technical exposition, the same as everybody else.

[Extended pause to fend off a phone call from my bored friend in Wisconsin.]

Okay, it’s a challenge now to regain grounding in the film, so I’ll just dig out on the noir-tinged cinematography – possibly just an accident of cheap resources and B&W film. It’s still moody and effective, especially since a no doubt soon-to-die cat burglar is being stalked up a fire escape by – is that Wong? Yup. Man has a habit of entering buildings via unusual entries – in this case, a tenth-storey window. It’s something, characterization-wise. Yeah, these silent bits of proto-noir, divorced of earth-bound plots, are the best parts of mysteries – that is, when they aren’t being character comedies.

Street enters, pistol a-blazin’, and scares off the burglar without a single fatality. Things calmed down, I retire to heat up some more snacks…

Thankfully, Doomed to Die switches out inky black suspense for more traded comic barbs, courtesy of Bobbie. Food’s ready!

At some point – it goes to show my continued inattention that I cannot say when – Wentworth was killed, fulfilling the needed secondary death. What with a will and all, he really was doomed. [Eat eat eat!] Wong now begins his clever scheming in anticipation of the climax (some 20 minutes away), demanding infrared film – seeing as it’s 1940, this demands a pause for the Crime Lab™ guys to explain to Bobbie (women – sheesh) just what infrared film is, and why we should use it to exterminate the Nazis. Naturally, a lengthy development scene follows, to further ground this new technology. Thankfully, the Bobbie/Street love-hate relationship fuels this scene with humor. Wong remains mostly tiresome.

Down to the docks, to another shadowy Monogram set – Docks, for that automatic injection of atmosphere (unpictured)! The plot reasoning for this – to follow up on a new name on the ship’s manifest, but if you couldn’t tell, I’m beyond trying with this story. Wong, Street and Bobbie all separately creep around dark corridors, in a manner Ed Wood, Jr. would refer to as “lurking.” Bobbie sees something off screen, screams girlishly, and I suppose I can forgive this lapse into female ‘40s stereotyping, seeing as Bobbie is usually totally adverse to such shenanigans. And it reveals the occasional (but not set-in-stone) third corpse, identity yet unknown. (Future edit: It’s Tie Ling, the Asian guy they’ve come down to check up on.)

The creeping scene continues; in fact, the characters’ comic interplay mixes with it, yielding quite possibly the most engaging single sequence yet for Wong & Co. Perhaps energized by these more overtly horrific qualities, Karloff even tosses a little light ham-acting into his Wong – trilled recitations on Chinese artifact history. Things are exciting enough, I’ve even forgotten all about my taquitos. [Eat eat eat!]

And…another fat, style-free exposition scene in the police station. Doomed to Die has been operating at such a relatively elevated level for long enough, some downtime is earned. Time to debate the implications of the latest clues found, as I tune out. I similarly ignore Bobbie’s misconstruing of hari kari as “harry harry.” Odd how everyone (sans Wong, natch) keeps insisting upon suicide for each death, even while the latest dude was stabbed in the back. (Some of this is self-aware, and thus lightly humorous.)

Exposition scene. Ignored. All in service of stiffening Dick’s and Cynthia’s lovey-doveyness.

Time remains only for a climax. For whatever reason, Doomed to Die errs as it did at the start by refocusing upon a house of tiresome suspects. Among them is a larger old man I’ve probably confused with Wentworth throughout the picture, because I only now become aware of him – Paul Fleming (Guy Usher). And…he’s dead, shot, murdered, and someone’s responsible. (Here is a fault in this “immediate response” approach, because the instant I finish that sentence, it turns out Paul isn’t dead, but oh well.)

All this gets Wong, Street, Bobbie, all the people we care about – it gets them assembled with the rest. It plays according to clockwork: Wong makes a surprise allegation so Street can arrest the proper villain, and I’m too ethical as a blogger (and also I’m not paying enough attention) to reveal that shock ending to you. And though this finale isn’t terribly functional, it is a virtue of older movies that they know to quit before things get worse – the movie ended something like a minute ago, in typing time.

In conclusion (what creative writing!), Doomed to Die surprises me more than anyone by being halfway entertaining. Maybe it’s a result of this type-as-I-go approach, but I think it’s something as simple as an increase of stylish ‘40s cinematography. Repeatedly, these forgotten old B-movies excel at visuals, and flounder with narrative – which separate nicely. One recalls Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which was praised by some of his contemporaries solely for its surreal visuals. The plot is decent, and works, but is mostly frivolous. Doomed to Die works in a similar, but much humbler, level. That is all.

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