Monday, 2 January 2012

CHARLIE CHAN and the genius of Norman Foster - forgotten auteur: Reviews By Greg Klymkiw of CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO, CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND & CHARLIE CHAN IN PANAMA

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the NINTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

WHO THE HELL IS NORMAN FOSTER? You dare even ask? Well, it wouldn't surprise me. Norman Foster was, without question, one of the most overlooked and underrated directors of American cinema.

Foster began his career as an actor - a dashing light leading man who was married to the ravishing Claudette Colbert until the mid-1930s when they divorced and he turned his attention to directing. Foster was a natural on the set and as a contract director at 20th Century Fox he sometimes delivered up to five feature films per year.

Foster's richest output was for Fox and the studio's wonderful "Mr. Moto" series which featured Peter Lorre (a Hungarian-Jew) as the Asian adventurer-sleuth. Lorre utilized his natural odd looks to such good effect in the title role of that series, that many have mistakenly assumed his eyes were taped back to give them and Oriental slant and that he'd been outfitted with a magnificent set of gleaming buck-tooth choppers. Foster's direction of this series of films was crisp and often thrilling. He reinvented the second feature mystery thriller by imbuing his hero with the personality and prowess of an adventurer. (One sees many Foster touches in the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.)

When Warner Oland, the beloved star of Fox's hit Asian sleuth series "Charlie Chan", died after a long illness, the studio needed to find some way to keep the successful franchise going. They hired Sidney Toler to replace Oland and after a successful debut, Fox looked at the stellar box office of the "Mr. Moto" series - a result of Norman Foster's thrilling direction - and they brought the dashing stylist on board for the second Chan of the Toler era and then, several others.

Foster proved to be the right man for the job. He infused life into the old chestnut and also contributed to making a huge star of Sidney Toler.

Foster's career after being Fox's go-to guy for Oriental sleuth thrillers was equally stellar and one wonders why he's been forgotten.

It’s possible Foster has been passed over for serious critical scrutiny and regard because much of his work was buried within the world of second features of the 1930s and 1940s. It might also be due to rumours that it was Orson Welles who designed and mostly directed (un-credited) the noir classic "Journey Into Fear". Welles was the star and Foster is officially credited with directing and while Welles’s influence in that picture is obvious, one can easily look at Norman Foster’s early work in the Fox second features he directed, note his exciting use of low-key stylings and crisp pacing and furthermore argue that he was possibly one of the many influences Welles himself "borrowed" from with both skill and abandon.

Welles denied he had anything to do with directing "Journey Into Fear", but still the rumours persisted. Given that Welles was working at RKO, a studio noted for its many low budget efforts, it's not a stretch to assume he had his eye on the work of someone like Foster who created veritable mountain chains out of ant hills - using a myriad of in-camera effects and opticals to extend the scope of his pictures. Foster, in turn and no doubt, had his eye on Welles. In fact, one could even argue that after his terrific work in "Journey into Fear", Foster’s direction of the great noir-ish melodrama "Woman on the Run" might well have given Alfred Hitchcock an idea or two for "Strangers On A Train."

In later years, Foster was responsible for directing a lot of extremely cool television drama in the 50s and 60s including a huge number of live television dramas, "The Loretta Young Show", Disney’s fantastic "Davy Crockett" dramatic specials with Fess Parker, the thrilling Disney "Zorro" series and he even dabbled in directing episodes of "Batman" with Adam West and "The Green Hornet" with a very young Bruce Lee as Kato.

Norman Foster, to my mind, is a great and unfairly neglected talent.

Here then, for your pleasure and interest are a few reviews of Norman Foster's entries in the magnificent series of mysteries that featured everyone's favourite epigram-spouting detective of the Oriental persuasion - CHARLIE CHAN!

Charlie Chan in Reno (1939) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Ricardo Cortez, Phyllis Brooks


By Greg Klymkiw

Reno, Nevada.

What a glorious setting for a movie.

It was also the setting for many a divorce when our parents and their parents’ parents and their parents' parents' parents needed a quickie nuptial-severance in that fine, old age when family values ruled over the more modern conceits of me-first selfishness. Even in those days, though, divorce, while less common than in contemporary times, was a reality and Reno was the town to do it - in the middle of nowhere, away from prying eyes and remote enough to avoid the shame and scandal of attacking the vestiges of Holy Matrimony.

Charlie Chan in Reno was officially the second entry in Fox’s Charlie Chan series reboot starring Warner Oland’s replacement Sidney Toler. It also happened to be Norman Foster’s first kick at the directorial Chan-can and the picture's definitely a fun little mystery with Chas and Number Two Son amidst a bunch of hot babes in Reno waiting to make their divorces legal. It’s a bit like George Cukor’s The Women, but with lots of laughs and dollops of suspense.

Plot-wise, it's simple stuff. Against the seedy backdrop of furtive divorce, one of the aforementioned babes is accused of murder and it’s up to Chas to wade through the massive number of other suspects to find the true killer.

The cast is first-rate. Toler delivers his epigrams and theories with considerable Cheshire-Cat-like aplomb while [Victor] Sen Yung as Number Two Son Jimmy stumbles and bumbles his way through Reno with his usual comic flair. In support of our leads, there are a number of terrific performances – mostly of the comic variety. Slim Summerville, the wonderful character actor who is most memorable in films like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page and the numerous silent and sound comedies he appeared in, stars as the irascible and often befuddled Sheriff Tombstone, a local Reno law enforcer who can’t make head nor tail out of the methods of the sly Asian dick. He's an inbred hick Inspector Lestrade to a poker-faced Asian Holmes.

Also gracing the screen is comic stalwart Eddie Collins as a dopey cab driver whose gift for gab is, for most of his clientele anyway, a curse, not a blessing. The bevy of beauties adorning the picture include the earnest, but gorgeous suspect Pauline Moore, the slobber-inducing guttersnipe murder victim Louise Henry, the ravishing Phyllis Brooks and the sultry Kay Linaker (who in the 50s would write the screenplay for the classic creature feature The Blob).

While this picture is blessed with Foster’s visual panache, it’s a bit closer to the earlier Chan pictures and doesn’t reach the dizzying heights that would follow in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. Foster appears to be getting his sea-legs with the series. In spite of this, it's still a terrifically entertaining mystery and like much of Foster's work, never feels like the second feature it was meant to be.

Like many of the Fox second features directed by Foster, it’s A-list entertainment all the way.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Young, Cesar Romero


By Greg Klymkiw

Norman Foster directed this third entry in Fox’s Charlie Chan series reboot and this is one of the best of all the Chan pictures. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, starring Sidney Toler, the man who filled Warner Oland’s shoes when Oland died, is an extremely cool mystery set against the backdrop of the San Francisco International Exposition wherein our venerable Asian detective investigates the death of one of his best friends.

Charlie’s sleuthing leads him into the mysterious world of magicians, psychics and other eccentrics of San Francisco high society. With the help of Number Two Son (the wonderful Sen Yung) and a magician (played with high camp flair by Cesar Romero), this is a really juicy mystery thriller with many moments of genuine suspense.

This is no surprise. Foster’s direction in the Toler Chan films really injects life into the series and they rival and at times, downright beat even some of the better Chan films from the Warner Oland period. This film, in particular, moves like a speeding bullet and it's probably one of the earliest serial killer movies.

The Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (part of Volume 4 of the Chan Collection) includes a full commentary track and a couple of terrific documentary featurettes. The most amazing of these mini-docs trace the potential influence of this film upon the notorious Zodiac killer. It's a most convincing and chiller postulation. Great directors have been known to influence a plethora of psychos and the arguments put forth in the doc are not without merit.

And it's no surprise that Norman Foster was one of the first directors in film history to place a magic bean deep into the mind of a real-life whack job - a bean that sprouted into one major twisted beanstalk within the diseased psyche of a notorious killer.

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940) dir. Norman Foster
Starring: Sidney Toler, Sen Yung, Lionel Atwill, Jack La Rue and Jean Rogers


By Greg Klymkiw

Charlie Chan in Panama crackles with excitement and it bears Mr. Norman Foster’s exquisite individual stamp of always-effective key lighting, his rich and crammed to the brim frame compositions and pacing (in narrative, action and dialogue) that careens with the ferocity of a rollercoaster. Foster always delivered the goods and this picture is no exception as it is truly the greatest Chan of them all.

Along with Erle Ford’s delightful Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and Lynn Shores’s eerie Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, this thrilling Panamanian-set mystery adventure is one of three terrific Chan pictures released by 20th Century-Fox in 1940. It is also a wonderful entry in the various series-styled pictures that brought their heroes into the world of war and espionage. During this time it was not uncommon for characters such as Tarzan and even Sherlock Holmes to be in the thick of battling Nazis and other assorted evil threats to the American – and by extension, democratic Western way of life.

Here we have Chan assisting the American “secret service” to thwart a potential terrorist action to destroy the Panama Canal. Sidney Toler, the more genial Chan thespian to the fabulous, but decidedly dour Warner Oland, is on undercover assignment in the guise of an Asian entrepreneur who runs a small shop specializing in – I kid you not – Panama hats. A murder occurs right in Chan’s store that sets the wheels in motion for an action-packed and downright suspenseful mystery-thriller set against an exotic world of back-alley stores and markets as well as a nightclub jammed with American and European expatriates (pre-dating, but not unlike Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca). That Foster comes close to recreating this world semi-realistically on a Fox back-lot is one of many testaments to his considerable prowess as a filmmaker.

The Chan pictures are always replete with magnificent acting. Toler, as usual, delivers Chan’s Cheshire grin and epigrammatic sayings with humour and considerable aplomb. Sen Young, also as per usual, bungles about hilariously as Number Two Son Jimmy. The supporting cast offers the expected delicious mixture and we are treated to the demented Lionel Atwill (Son of Frankenstein’s oft-parodied wooden-armed Inspector Krogh) as a novelist with more than a few secrets. Jean Rogers, the luscious beauty queen and former Flash Gordon battling babe Dale Arden, appears as a slinky songstress with a mysterious past and lest we forget, Charlie Chan in Panama features the ever-delicious scumbag Jack La Rue as the sleazy club owner Manolo who is blackmailing the aforementioned dish into spying.

Manolo’s club is also a marvel of atmosphere. Then again, the whole film is overflowing with atmosphere – ceiling fans galore, bright nightclubs with marimba bands, shadows aplenty and oodles of evocative single key lighting effects. Not only is director Foster on the ball; he is aided by stunning production design and the unparalleled cinematography of Virgil Miller. Miller was the pioneering Director of Photography on the early Technicolor extravaganza Garden of Allah in addition to numerous Moto, Chan and Sherlock Holmes pictures. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until the 50s when both Foster and Miller were recognized with Oscar nominations – but for a movie far removed from the magical, stylized studio worlds they were known for, but the vérité-styled semi-documentary Navajo which was closer to the tradition of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.

All in all, Charlie Chan in Panama is a first-rate entry in the Chan series – so much so that one does wish that Foster and his numerous collaborators had more critical and awards recognition. At the end of the day, however, they had the greatest recognition of all – audiences. With this film and many others, Foster and company generated hit after hit – proving, of course, that audience recognition should ultimately be the highest form of recognition for filmmakers.

Who else would and should they be making pictures for if not the audience?

Charlie Chan in Panama is available on DVD as part of Volume 5 of the Charlie Chan Cinema Classics Collection from 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.