Black Magic (1944)


(director: Phil Rosen; screenwriter: George Callahan/characters by Earl Derr Biggers; cinematographer: Arthur Martinelli; editor: John Link; music: Alexander Laszlo; cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Mantan Moreland (Birmingham Brown), Frances Chan (Frances Chan), Joseph Crehan (Police Sgt. Matthews), Helen Beverley (Norma Duncan/Nancy Wood), Jacqueline deWit (Justine Bonner), Frank Jaquet (Paul Hamlin), Harry Depp (Charles Edwards), Geraldine Wall (Harriet Green), Claudia Dell (Vera Starkey), Charles Jordan (Tom Starkey), Edward Earle (Dawson, Police Lab), Richard Gordon (William Bonner), Ralph Peters (Officer Rafferty); Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: James S. Burkett/Philip N. Krasne; Monogram Pictures; 1944)
“A middling Charlie Chan, that’s beginning to show its age.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A middling Charlie Chan, that’s beginning to show its age. It’s directed in a workmanlike way befitting the formula by Phil Rosen (“The Chinese Cat”/”Call of the Jungle”/”Captain Tugboat Annie”). The poverty row Monogram studio shot it on the cheap, which shows in poor sets and production values.

It just happens Charlie Chan’s (Sidney Toler) African American assistant Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) is hired as a butler by the phony psychics William Bonner (Dick Gordon) and Justine Bonner(Jacqueline deWit), as Charlie and daughter Frances Chan plan to return from their San Francisco vacation to Honolulu. But Charlie is blackmailed by lead investigator Sgt. Matthews into cutting short his vacation and helping him solve the murder of William Bonner at the Bonner seance, or else he will hold his daughter for suspicion. If we let that bit of the ridiculous pass, we get into Charlie investigating the suspects at the seance. Each suspect has a motive to kill the fraudulent medium: Nancy Duncan’s father committed suicide because the fake pair stole his business secrets when he was under hypnoses and gave it to his rivals; Frank Jaquet and Harriet Green were being blackmailed by the Bonners; Charles Edwards has questionable business dealings with them, as he owns a magic shop; and Vera and Tom Starkey work the back room mechanical props to carry off the illusions. With the help of the lab man Dawson and a cablegram from Scotland Yard, Charlie figures out the nature of the invisible bullet, how the gun could be fired in the room when everyone there was holding hands and the killer’s motive.

Nothing special, but it has its entertaining moments and the case’s resolution might even make sense if its pseudo scientific explanations are correct. As always, when Moreland is in a pic, around for comic relief, the racial stereotyping issue arises. Here he’s unduly scared of spooks.