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DEAD MEN TELL(director: Harry Lachman; screenwriter: John Larkin; cinematographer: Charles Clarke; editor: Harry Reynolds; cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Sheila Ryan (Kate Ransome), Robert Weldon (Steve Daniels), Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan), Donald Douglas (Jed Thomasson), Kay Aldridge (Laura Thursday), Paul McGrath (Charles Thursday), George Reeves (Bill Lydig), Truman Bradley (Captain Kane), Ethel Griffies (Miss Nodbury), Lenita Lane (Doctor Anne Bonney), Milton Parsons (Gene LaFarge); Runtime: 61; 20th Century Fox; 1941)
“It was entertaining to watch all the spookiness aboard the ship.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Honolulu detective Charlie Chan (Toler) comes aboard a boat embarking tomorrow on a $60 million treasure hunt business promotion to the Cocos Island. An eccentric elderly woman with a bad heart, Miss Nodbury, whose ancestors were pirates, has hired Captain Kane to take them and Steve Daniels to make all the passenger arrangements. But Miss Nodbury tells Charlie that she wants to cancel the voyage because she suspects one of her partners is a thief. As a precaution she divided the map into four pieces, keeping one part and distributing the three other parts to passengers. She’s the only one who knows who has all the parts.

There’s supposed to be no one aboard, but all the passengers say they received a call from Daniels; though, Daniels denies ever making such a call. When Kate Ransome, the typist girlfriend of Daniel screams at the sight of Charlie’s Number One Son moaning from a closed box and Miss Nodbury doesn’t come out of her cabin– Charlie investigates and finds her dead and her part of the map missing. Charlie says she died of fright at seeing a ghost of the pirate Black Hook, as someone purposely scared her to get the map–which makes this a murder case.

The boat remains at the dock, as Charlie keeps everyone on the ship. Every passenger becomes a suspect: Bill Lydig (Steve Reeves-none other than the one who is later on to play Superman) poses as a reporter, but Charlie quickly figures out he’s using the name of a dead reporter and is really a murderer on the loose. Thomasson is a rare coin collector, but little else is known about him. Doctor Anne Bonney is a shrink and she’s treating a severely neurotic patient Gene LaFarge, who exhibits strange behavior as he tries to overcome his impulse to run away from things. Laura and Charles Thursday just got married and have sneaked on board to neck in their cabin, unaware of the murder and the screams. He’s a movie actor, traveling incognito. Captain Kane is an embittered man who says he doesn’t like people, and has some dark secret. He refuses to meet the passengers until the ship sails.

In this convoluted script, the comedy comes from Number Two Son, Jimmy, falling in the water a number of times when not getting accidentally locked in a box. Also, LaFarge’s strange mannerisms and Miss Nodbury’s belief that her relative Black Hook will come to her as a ghost when her time is up to take her to the other world, adds some comic moments. It was not easy to figure out the killer, since little was told about the suspect. But, as is usually the case in this series, the least likely one is the guilty party. It was entertaining to watch all the spookiness aboard the ship, to see someone disguised as the pegleg Black Hook and to watch Jimmy running around in the dark getting an innocent man arrested. But the story itself made little sense. What made sense was the atmospheric harbor scenes. This gave the film an eerie feeling and made the fishy story seem less briny.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”