CASTLE IN THE DESERT (director/writer: Harry Lachman; screenwriter: John Larkin; cinematographer: Virgil E. Miller; editor: John Brady; cast: Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler), Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan), Arleen Whelan (Brenda Hartford), Richard Derr (Carl Detheridge), Douglass Dumbrille (Paul Manderley), Henry Daniell (Watson King), Edmund MacDonald (Walter Hartford), Lenita Lane (Lucrezia ‘Lucy’ Manderley), Ethel Griffies (Lily, Mme. Saturnia), Lucien Littlefield (Prof. Gleason), Milton Parsons (Arthur Fletcher), Steven Geray (Dr. Retling); Runtime: 62; 20th Century Fox; 1942)
“The film has many plot twists and the usual Chan setup for the mystery story to unfold.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This was the last of the Chan series put out by Twentieth Century Fox. The poverty row studio Monogram Pictures picked the series up for the remaining episodes and the quality diminished.
The Manderley castle is set in the isolated Mojave desert where the historian scholar and recluse, Paul Manderley (Dumbrille), who covers half of his face because of a scar, lives with his wife Lucy (Lane).
When one of the castle guests, Prof. Gleason (Littlefield), is offered a drink of wine by Lucy, who is related to the famous Borgia accused of being a poisoner, he suddenly falls dead. The family physician, Dr. Retling (Geray), says he was poisoned. The ill-tempered Manderley is upset that this will bring about unwelcome attention to his family name and one of the conditions of keeping this vast estate, is that there should be no scandal. His lawyer, Walter Hartford (MacDonald), suggests they cover-up the death as a heart attack.
Charlie Chan (Toler) receives a letter from Lucy inviting him to come alone to the castle, because she fears for her life. When he arrives, she tells him that she never sent the letter. But when Charlie tries to leave the car distributor is stolen and Charlie is marooned with the other guests in the 16th century castle that has no telephone or modern conveniences.
The other guests are the famous sculptor Watson King (Daniell); the medieval historian Carl Detheridge (Derr); and, Brenda Hartford (Whalen), the attractive wife of Walter. There are also three intruders: Jimmy Chan (Yung) comes to warn pop he received a threatening letter; a fortune teller who follows the stars, Mme. Saturnia (Griffies), comes with Jimmy to make predictions of who is to die; and, an intruder, Fletcher (Parsons), who is posing as a hunter, but his lie is uncovered and he reveals himself as a private detective. Fletcher will also supposedly die when drinking a glass of wine Lucy gives him.
The film has too many plot twists for its own good. Plus the story is too far-fetched and tries too hard to be mysterious, which causes it to falter in credibility. But the desert atmosphere of the 16th-century castle, the usual comic antics of Number Two Son, and all the suspects moving cautiously around the dark corners of the spooky castle, should please Charlie Chan fans and give them their usual thrills.
My favorite film quote is from Charlie Chan: ” Man who fears death, dies a thousand times.”
REVIEWED ON 8/6/2001 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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