This is one of my favorite Charlie Chan movies though explaining why may make it sound as if it's not so much a favorite after all. But believe me when I tell you that I have lost count of how many times I've viewed and enjoyed this film over the years, despite it's many faults. (Or maybe because of its many faults.) Whatever the reason, I have a great deal of affection for CASTLE IN THE DESERT.
I'll make a 'query' list and see if we can come to a reasonable explanation of some things about this film (directed by Harry Lachman) that have always bugged me.
The story makes little enough sense (but that's okay, very few screenplays make actual sense), but let me give you the gist of it first: Charlie Chan is on the scene in an actual castle in the California desert when murder occurs. Okay. Though why he is actually there is never fully explained unless it is merely at the whim of a murderer. Fair enough, I suppose. One can assume that even a murderer may be prone to whims.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The gloomy castle is the home of Paul Manderley (Douglas Dumbrille), a wealthy, eccentric and very reclusive historian who has decided to immerse himself inside the life of a 15th (or maybe 16th) century man - one of the infamous Borgias - with the eventual goal of writing a biography. To that end, he and his wife and a staff of servants live out in the middle of the desert, 35 miles from the nearest town of Mojave Wells. Castle Manderley comes complete with dungeon and apothecary and is devoid of all 20th century luxuries, i.e. electricity, phones and that sort of thing. One would assume they have running water and inside toilets. But one would only be guessing.
(Yeah, I'm noting the name Manderley, same as the house in REBECCA of 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...' fame - the book by Daphne du Maurier. Coincidence?)
As the film opens, Manderley's wife Lucrezia (aka Lucy) Manderley (Lenita Lane), Doctor Retling (Steven Geray), Manderley's physician, his lawyer Walter Hartford (Edmund MacDonald) and the lawyer's wife Brenda (Arleen Whelan) are having cocktails. Oh, and there's one other member of the party, another historian, a younger professor, Carl Detheridge played by Richard Derr of When Worlds Collide 'fame' who, though he has star billing, has absolutely NOTHING to do in the film but stand around. He's not even in the opening sequence. Supposedly he's off somewhere doing research, though we don't even know he's in the castle until later when Charlie Chan runs across him in a library.
Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself again.
Long story short: A visiting genealogist supposedly dies of poison that same night. The incident is hushed up because Paul Manderley dreads scandal for good reason: he will lose control of his fortune if any hint of it - scandal, I mean - is attached to his name. (!?) They all suspect Manderley's wife has gone mad - because she is an actual descendant of Lucrezia Borgia - the 15th century Renaissance poisoner. Apparently Mrs. Manderley has decided on a whim (there goes that 'whim' thing again), to poison a guest in her home.
When a second murder occurs, Manderley is entreated by his doctor and his lawyer to have Lucy Manderley put away. He tells his doctor to have the lawyer draw up the papers. As if that's all anyone has to do and boom! someone is off to the loony bin. But maybe that's the way it was back in 1942.
In the meantime, Charlie Chan - who is traveling in Southern California with his number two son, Jimmy (Sen Yung), fresh on furlough from the Army - has received a note ostensibly from Mrs. Manderley, the Princess de La Borgia begging him to come to her aid. He decides, on the strength of the note alone, to drop his plans and rush out into the desert. Needless to say, Jimmy follows not long afterwards though, of course, his dad has told him not to. The note says for Chan to come alone.
A great photo of Sidney Toler
Chan arrives in Mojave Wells and gets a hostile reception from some townies who resent Manderley's high handed lifestyle and the way he goes around town with 'half his face covered up'. Oh, did I fail to mention that Manderley has a black mask-like thing over the right side of his face? Well, he has. It's meant to cover up the effects of a horrible explosion.
The townies also resent Manderley's wife who they claim has 'put a curse on the town.'
Chan absorbs all this and when the station wagon from the castle arrives to pick him up, he and another passenger, the late arriving Watson King (played by Henry Daniell - hisssss!) are carted off to the castle. Later, Jimmy Chan shows up and hires a taxi to take him out to the castle as well. Along for that ride is the local old lady astrologer and teller of fortunes, Madam Saturnia (Ethel Griffies). She senses doom out at the castle and wants to tag along to see if she can help her friend Mrs. Manderley.
Turns out that Watson King - also known as John (!?) - is a sculptor who has arrived, at a rather inopportune time, to create a bust of Mrs. Manderley. But apparently there is more up his sleeve than a glob of clay.
When the only car (?!) in the garage has its carburetor removed, everyone is stranded in the castle with a murderer in attendance. Except that instead of an AND THEN THERE WERE NONE type scenario (as in the famed Agatha Christie story) we get a paltry single murder, to my mind, one of the main faults of the story. (The previous two 'murders' don't count. You'll know why if you see or have seen the film.)
Sen Yung and Sidney Toler
Now for my points of inquiry:
1) The casting of Lenita Lane as Mrs. Manderley. Though she is at the heart of the story, this actress's 'performance' is a lead weight that sinks every scene she's in. OMG, has there ever been a worse actress in the entire annals of Hollywood history?
She speaks her lines as if she were a stand-in suddenly called upon to perform a Shakespearean tragedy at a supper theater in Des Moines. Every time I see this film, I marvel again at her incredible awfulness. I mean, she takes dreadful acting to new heights. It is so bad it takes your breath away. (Maybe that's part of the attraction of the film. To see again how bad an actor can be and still get a job in Hollywood.) The sing-song cadence of her speech has to be heard to be believed.
Sidney Toler and Lenita Lane
Even more incredibly, Lane appears in a couple of other Charlie Chan films. I can only assume she had some sort of strange hold over the powers that be, either in the production and casting end or at the studio.
2) The casting of an almost equally awful Steven Geray as Dr. Retling. Geray is bad, but in a different sort of way. He is this incredibly odd little fellow with a cabaret German accent and a truly creepy, faux sympathetic boyish veneer. The sort of 'doctor' one should normally take precautions against, and yet here he is, staying at this castle in charge of the health of a millionaire recluse who is as strange as he is....(Well, maybe that explains the whole connection.) He has a habit of repeating inane lines and simplistic cliches, which, I admit, are the screen-writer's fault, though I blame Geray for going along with it.
3) The casting of Richard Derr. WHY IS THIS MAN IN THIS FILM? I'll tell you why. Because they needed a body to fill up the screen. He's meant to be the young lead - handsome, suave and looks great in a white dinner jacket - but he has absolutely NOTHING to do with anything in the script and there's no younger woman for him to play against. He's not even a murder victim! I can only assume that his part was lost in the editing.
4) Mrs. Manderley insists that she never sent for Charlie Chan. She has no idea why he's shown up at the castle out of the blue. So, who the heck sent for him? More importantly, WHY? This is never satisfactorily explained.
5) Who is Watson King? The part played by Henry Daniell - hissss! Is he a sculptor? A private detective? The long lost step-brother of Mrs. Manderley? Or all of the above. Someone please clear this up. The explanation in the film doesn't make much sense. And if he IS a private eye - WHO THE HECK HIRED HIM? Mrs. Manderley seems not to know him and yet she is the only likely person to have hired a private eye to check on things at the castle. Still, as played by Lenita Lane, she appears oblivious to the drama swirling around her. Apparently doesn't even know that the genealogist has disappeared.
Henry Daniell - hissss!
6) The idiocy of Paul Manderley. Why would a man keep a shelf full of active poisons in his home in an UNLOCKED dungeon room when even he suspects his wife is not all that she should be AND his fear of scandal is at a pathological point? Why does he have an obvious shyster for a lawyer? Edmund MacDonald - come on. To look at him is to instantly clutch your wallet. Also: Why is there no emergency means of connection to the outside world? No secret phone that only Manderley knows about, for instance. (Yeah, I know, I know, because then there'd be no story.) Why only ONE car? Yeah, it's a gorgeous woody station wagon, with the crest of the Borgias on the side, but still...
7) Where is the staff of servants when bad things happen? Are they all hiding out in the servants' quarters? More importantly - how do these people go back and forth into town? Presumably someone has to shop for food and the other necessities of staying alive in the middle of the desert. Is one station wagon really enough? Most importantly, how much are they being paid to put up with the extreme inconvenience of working at Castle Manderley? Lots and lots of money, I hope.
8) Last and most important: Why on earth does Paul Manderley wear a mask? The eventual denouement makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. I mean, jeez, talk about a non-surprise followed by a non-sensical explanation.
See what I mean? Lots to object to, but the film still works its spell on me every time I see it. I'm sorry but I can't be objective. CASTLE ON THE DESERT is just much greater than the sum of its B-movie parts. I love it but can offer no rational explanation for it. Kind of like the explanation for the mask. HA!
Henry Daniell - hissss! Sen Yung and Sidney Toler.
CASTLE IN THE DESERT has a cast of familiar actors who show up again and again in other Chan films made during the 1940's. There seemed to be a casting department from which many of the same actors were plucked to play various roles - sometimes the villain, sometimes the window dressing. I like that. It's possible that part of my affection for these film springs from that sense of familiarity. Though I could definitely have done without Lenita Lane.
NOTE: This is my entry in Todd Mason's Weekly Meme - Tuesday's Forgotten or Overlooked Films. For more films and the posts of other film mavens, please check out Todd's blog, SWEET FREEDOM.