Charlie Chan in Panama [1940]

The Charlie Chan Collection Volume 5 brings Fox's series of film mysteries based on Earl Derr Biggers' Chinese-Hawaiian detective to a conclusion with the studio's final seven features with Caucasian actor Sidney Toler in the lead. Budget restraints forced these latter Chan features to reduce the quality of their productions, and more often than not, the films took place on limited sets and without the scope or atmosphere of the earlier films. Plots were also reduced in running time and ambition; though hinged on a fun plot involving a plastic surgeon who creates new identities for crooks on the lam, Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum clocks in at barely over an hour, and suffers from bare sets and some highly predictable plot twists. Likewise, Dead Men Tell never leaves its claustrophobic pirate ship location, and Castle in the Desert, the final Chan film for Fox, is a confused hodgepodge of pulp thriller and horror tropes. Despite these drawbacks, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from Volume 5, especially in Charlie Chan in Rio, a remake of 1931's The Black Camel (with Warner Oland as Chan) that brims with an energy lacking from the later Toler efforts (there's also a nice bit involving Toler and Victor Sen Young's Number Two Son Jimmy conversing in Chinese with subtitles). Cinematography is also superlative in all of the Chan pictures included here, which lends a great deal of atmosphere to the modestly budgeted features. But the key pleasure of the Charlie Chan films is watching the detective unravel the case (no matter how convoluted) in his deliberate and patient manner, and Toler's performance (who would bring the character to Monogram and continue to play him until his death in 1947, after which Chan was essayed by Roland Winters) remains a distinct pleasure. Sen Young, though occasionally forced to mug furiously as Jimmy, lends likable support as Jimmy. There are also a host of Hollywood names on hand in supporting roles, including Lionel Atwill, Leo G. Carroll, Flash Gordon vets Jean Rogers and Frank Middleton, George Reeves, and even future Stooge Shemp Howard as a faux Hindu! Trailers for each film are included in the set, as well as still galleries and a 35-minute featurette which discusses, among other details, the impact of World War II on Fox's decision to bring the Chan series to a close. --Paul Gaita

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