Sunday, 8 August 2010

Rack to the Future?

Phantom of Chinatown 1940 US
Directed by Phil Rosen
VCI Entertainment DVD Region 1

Wow. This one is really interesting!

Phantom of Chinatown is the last of the six Mr. Wong films and it is also the only one to feature Charlie Chan’s "Number One Son" Keye Luke in the role of Mr. Wong, taking over from Boris Karloff... and all I can say is... Blimey. I’ve always liked Keye Luke but he really brings something to the role whereas Karloff, also a brilliant actor, always looked as though he was just drifting in the general direction of his next paycheck in the previous films.

Now, as I said above, this one is an interesting Mr. Wong film, for many reasons... my first being that all the continuity flies straight out of the window because... well, get this...

Keye Luke is playing a much younger, obviously, version of the James Wong character... in fact he’s mostly referred to as Jimmy, presumably to catch that “hip” Lee Chan vibe. However, although stalwart Grant Withers continues to play his regular series character Captain Street, it soon becomes apparent that he and Mr. Wong have never met before (and it’s set in the same timeline so don’t go where you’re thinking). Which is just bizarre! If you’re looking to “reboot” the franchise, to put it in modern terms, then why the heck would you retain actors in a character role but give them no memory of previous adventures? How bizarre. It’s like rebooting the James Bond franchise and then having M played by the same actress who... oh, wait a minute... probably best to get off that subject then ;-)

Ok... so once the “out with the old and in with the new” effect has been collectively acclimatised to, we have a real humdinger of a movie... it’s admittedly not a fast paced affair (at least not for the first half of the movie) but it certainly has a good, well written (for the time) script... and while it ditches the screwball angle (Street’s wise cracking, thorn in his side, newspaper gal has been ditched again), it certainly has a more intelligent variety of dialogue than the previous movies and it’s also well performed dialogue at that... Luke and Withers have a remarkable chemistry and I’m really disappointed that this series didn’t continue after this entry.

Two amazing shots struck me when I watched it, both more or less at the same point in the movie. The second, and slightly lesser amazing shot because it’s purely me appreciating an aesthetic solution is when Mr. Wong is knocked unconscious. The old visual shorthand of shadows on the wall is being employed and Mr. Wong walks on with his shadow on the brick wall behind him... however, he then bends down and the shadow is still there... it then clumps him on the head since it’s REALLY the shadow of his attacker... this was a nice effect and took me by surprise.

But the OTHER amazing thing really had me bouncing up and down in my chair... it’s just before that last shot happens... indeed it might even have been part of the same shot. The brick wall in question is the wall of a house... a window is visible to the right of the screen, Captain Street can be seen from us inside the house in deep focus and then Wong walks on, left of shot. At which point the focus of the camera is deliberately shifted to blur out Captain Street and focus on Wong... and there you have it... the first example of “rack focusing” I have ever seen in a movie this early. It’s 1940 people! According to the source of all knowledge... oh, alright then, wikipedia... director Richard Rush claims that he and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs invented the “rack focusing” shot in 1968. Now this is interesting (isn’t it?) because I don’t ever remember seeing a rack focus shot in any film earlier than the late 60s until I watched this Mr. Wong film this morning. Who do I report this to? Does anybody care about this? Credit where credit’s due... the cinematographer on this Wong movie was one Fred Jackman Jr and I reckon him or the director may well have invented the rack focusing technique all those years ago... just didn’t make a fuss about it and carried on as normal. I may well be wrong on this one and if you know of any earlier films in which this was the case then PLEASE let me know about it. Think I might be onto something here.

Anyway... despite its reputation as being the least watchable Mr. Wong film (in the small audience this film series has) I have to say that I found it to be the most interesting one of the series. Such a pity that Monogram didn’t carry on with the character after this but... hey... what an ending to the series. My favourite one!

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