By Natasha Samreny
In a world where people still got land-line phone calls in restaurants and $1 cocktails were considered expensive, Boris Karloff is detective James Lee Wong. Better known as Mr. Wong, the Chinese sleuth is based on author Charles Wiley’s mystery series character. In Doomed to Die, Wong works the case of a shipping magnate’s mysterious death.
While I’ve heard about Mr. Wong, this was my first movie experience. Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvin Lang) owns a shipping company. His major ship goes down with over a million dollars in illicit Chinese bonds. The same day, the son of his competitor, Dick Fleming (William Stelling) comes to Wentworth’s office to discuss his own plans to marry Mr. Wentworth’s daughter Cynthia (Catherine Craig). The father’s already aware and he is overdone about the arrangement.
They start to argue and all of a sudden, a gun shot is heard from outside Wentworth’s office door. When the people waiting outside hear the noise, they rush in to see Fleming gone, a gun thrown to the side and Wentworth dead on the floor.
What happened? Did Fleming shoot Wentworth? Did another gun man pull the trigger? Or did Wentworth, distraught by his huge recent losses just off himself?
It’s your classic case of murder mystery Whodunit with a string of characters and possible culprits introduced along the way. While Captain William Street (Grant Withers) is assigned the beat, reporter Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) follows up on the story. Bobbie and the Captain are both recurring characters in the Wong series. Bobbie also happens to be Cynthia’s best friend and bridesmaid who is with her when they came across the crime scene in her father’s office. Bobbie doesn’t leave the captain alone for a second. She makes cracks about him fouling up other investigations in the past, and they don’t seem to like to each other. So their relationship makes for some bits of funny.
While the screenplay is okay, its execution is predictable. My favorite parts are the era-specific and vintage wardrobe and language style, role characterizations, and the 1940s film’s use of camera POV.
Women wear hats and gloves to match their skirt suits, while men don tilted fedoras and bowlers. Throughout his investigation, Mr. Wong wears a three-piece suit, pocket square and carries a cane. What private eye sleuth still does that out of style or practicality? Bobbie’s on the case in a skirt suit, heels, and a pinned hat with a feather sticking out of it that makes for some chuckles whenever the Captain gets a noseful bending over her shoulder.
The police questioning script is classic 1930s/40s third-degree cop speak, rife with era-style phrases:
Captain Street: Did you shoot him in self-defense?
Dick Fleming: No.
Captain: Kill ‘im in a fit of insanity?
Dick: I didn’t kill ‘im I tell you! …
Dick: I didn’t do it!
Captain: Lock ‘im up boys.
When Bobbie first meets with the captain to get the story, he tells her to sit down so he can dictate how it should be printed. He proceeds to talk up his “lightning-like speed” and crime-solving abilities. The way he treats her with measured annoyance and direction seems part cop-reporter, part old school movie male chauvinism.
My favorite part of the movie showcases the obvious difference in female delicateness and male chauvinism portrayed in films then as opposed to now.
At one part, Bobbie and Captain Street are sneaking through an attic looking for clues when Bobbie faints from the attic door movie underneath her feet. She frightfully tugs at the captain for his attention and when he doesn’t respond, she literally keels over like dead weight and faints. As if the moment couldn’t get funnier, after Bobbie passes out Mr. Wong pops through the attic door, apologizing to the captain for giving Miss Logan a fright, and then they leave her there on the floor of some strange man’s attic where they found a dead body just minutes before! If you look closely, you can actually see her hand accidentally move up in the shadows after she passes out.
Aside from leaving a professional colleague unconscious in the field, Mr. Wong’s character is delightful, respectable and so British. Despite his British lilt, his makeup and clothes are designed to make him look the part—Asian and different from the Westerners around him: he wears a Fu Manchu, flower-topped 3-piece suit and glasses that angle his eyes. Even with his kind demeanor, Wong seems more mysterious than the mystery.
Finally, while the story moves at a nice pace, I always have to adjust my mind to the different style of these older films. Like cranking a dial inside my head, it usually takes one or two to get into the mood—they feel more scripted and the camera angles and staging are more predictable per the more limited dynamics of camera equipment then.
The stage set-up is more theatrical with characters positioned at various depths in the scene. Establishing shots tend to anchor from downstage, actors are often viewed in profile and the camera pans left or right as needed. In today’s cinema, non-traditional angles and handheld camera movement is widely used to develop the audience’s sense of suspense by simulating the voyeuristic feeling we’re peeking in on something we shouldn’t be seeing, or that this is all being watched by another shadowy observer.
There is some camera work that is fun to catch and seems experimental for the time. When Mr. Wong visits some Chinese countrymen for leads on the Chinese passengers of the ship that went down, director William Nigh runs this great 360 camera pan to stop at and catch the expression of each man at the table. The swishing pan with the stilted stop seems experimental for the time.
Finally, make sure to watch this one headphones or a strong and clear sound system. There are no subtitles options and the dialogue is tough to make out at times.
I give it a 2.5 because I wouldn’t necessarily watch it again. Unless you’re a Mr. Wong or Boris Karloff fan, it’s nice to watch for nostalgic reasons or from a film history appreciation perspective. Or now for Halloween. If you don’t like horror movies but want to be a little spooked, Karloff’s your man.