Lynn Bari and Sidney Toler in City in Darkness (1939)



(director: Herbert I. Leeds; screenwriters: Robert Ellis/Helen Logan/from a play by Ladislas Fodor and Gina Kaus; cinematographer: Virgil E. Miller; editor: Harry Reynolds; cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Lynn Bari (Marie Dubon), Douglas Dumbrille (Petroff), Richard Clarke(Tony Madero), Pedro de Cordoba (Antoine), Harold Huber (Marcel), Dorothy Tree (Charlotte Randell), C. Henry Gordon (Prefect of Police J. Romaine), Noel Madison (Belescu), Leo G. Carroll (Santelle); Runtime: 75; 20th Century Fox; 1939)

“This was one of the poorer Charlie Chan episodes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was one of the poorer Charlie Chan episodes. A French policeman acting as Chan’s partner, whose father is the police chief, becomes the source for comedy. The story was much too confusing, with too many characters appearing in uninteresting or unexplainable roles. There was hardly any mystery, as it barely met the minimum formula requirements for a Chan episode.

The film is set in Paris in 1938, just at the possible outbreak of WW11. Paris is in darkness because of the air raids. Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) arrives in the City of Light for a reunion with his WW1 buddies. At the meeting a butler (Cordoba), who works for a munitions dealer named Petroff (Dumbrille), crashes the meeting to show the prefect of police, J. Romaine (Gordon), a threatening letter to his boss by an accused embezzler, Tony Madero (Clarke). Charlie takes an active interest in the letter when he observes the butler steamed it open.

This mystery doesn’t have much of a mystery to it, as there is nothing to guess–the ‘bad guys’ are plainly evident. The film is all about running around and catching an international spy ring, who are trying to get clearance papers so they could ship out munitions before the expected embargo comes as soon as war is declared. Petroff is partners with a shady character called Belescu (Madison) and they are promised a huge sum of money by the foreign spy Charlotte Randell (Tree) to get them clearance papers. But Charlotte double-crosses Belescu and doesn’t pay him, and at gunpoint rips him off for the papers. When Belescu leaves, Charlotte finds out that he outsmarted her and left her blank pieces of paper instead. That evening Petroff turns up dead, and the clearance papers are missing.

Madero became angry with Petroff for making sexual advances to his girlfriend Marie Dubon (Lyn) and threatened to expose his illegal activities. But Petroff beat him to the punch and framed him. So Madero tries to flee Paris rather than stand trial.

When the prefect of police is too busy following the war to get involved in this case, he assigns his idiotic godson to be in charge, Marcel (Huber). Firstly, it’s unbelievable how such a moron could be given that assignment, as there seemed to be no second in command (I realize that this is merely an escapist Charlie Chan and doesn’t necessarily have to make sense. But in order to be more effective it should at least make some sense.). Marcel is annoying, he’s not funny, and he overacts. But Charlie comes along in his usual efficient manner to take charge of the murder investigation, as he tracks down the spy ring and their accomplices in the underworld.

The film ends with Chan expressing concern over the “Peace in Our Time” solution to the Munich affair orchestrated by Britain’s Neville Chamberlain.