Robert Lowery, Sidney Toler, and Marjorie Weaver in Murder Over New York (1940)


(director/writer: Harry Lachman; screenwriter: Lester Ziffren; cinematographer: Virgil E. Miller; editor: Louis Loeffler; cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan), Marjorie Weaver (Patricia Narvo), Shemp Howard (Fakir), Robert Lowery (David Elliott), Ricardo Cortez (George Kirby), Donald MacBride (Inspector Vance), Clarence Muse (Butler), Melville Cooper (Herbert Fenton), Joan Valerie (June Preston), Kane Richmond (Ralph Percy), John Sutton (Richard Jeffery), Frederic Worlock (Hugh Drake), Leyland Hodgson (Boggs, Butler), Lal Chand Mehra (Ramullah/Aga Singh); Runtime: 65; 20th Century Fox; 1940)
“An uneven production.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An uneven production marred by some politically incorrect ethnic slurs against a black butler (Muse) and by holes in the mystery story, yet it had its moments of sheer joy even if it ends up being a slightly below average Charlie Chan entry. Shemp Howard, one of the Three Stooges, does a funny bit as he fakes being a Hindu fakir during a police line-up.

Charlie leaves Honolulu for the annual police convention in New York and meets on the plane his old friend Inspector Drake of Scotland Yard (Worlock), who is now with British Military Intelligence. He’s been working on a case of bomber plane saboteurs, and believes the ring is headed by Paul Narvo. Intelligence can’t locate him but his ex-wife, a former actress, has been traced to New York, which is why Drake is on the flight. He says he has in his briefcase Narvo’s photo and fingerprints and invites Charlie to help in the case. Drake is staying with the owner of an aircraft company, Mr. Kirby (Cortez), whose firm manufactures these experimental bombers.

When Charlie lands in the Big Apple he’s surprised to see his eager but inept number two son, Jimmy (Yung), who tells pop he took a break from attending USC and came to see the World’s Fair and to help him. Also there to greet Charlie, is Inspector Vance (MacBride) of New York. When Charlie goes to see Drake, he finds him poisoned in the library of Kirby’s apartment. All the guests at Kirby’s party immediately become suspects. Herbert Fenton (Cooper) is a schoolmate of Drake’s from their Oxford days, but has a snappy attitude when questioned and doesn’t seem that concerned that his schoolmate is dead. Mr. Jeffery (Sutton) is a silky smooth stock broker and business adviser of Kirby’s. Ralph Percy (Richmond) is the designer of Kirby’s new test bomber. Boggs is the butler who claims he was falsely arrested in London, which is why he steamed open a radiogram sent to Drake. June Preston is a beautiful actress who has a pearl missing from her brooch, which is later found in the library. Since she said she wasn’t in the library, Charlie returns to her apartment later on for further questioning. There she reveals Drake questioned her about Mrs. Patricia Narvo (Weaver), also an actress. She believes her friend is innocent and therefore refused to tell Drake where he could find her. Charlie visits Patricia and her chemist boyfriend, David Elliott (Lowery). David happens to be experimenting with the chemical poison that killed Drake, and he also came unannounced to the party to see Drake when the regular butler was called to other duties and the temporary black butler let him in.

The funniest scene in the film was when the police are after a Hindu who jumped Jimmy. To get this Hindu, Vance orders that all the Hindus in NYC be brought into a line-up for Jimmy to identify. Wouldn’t you know it, one of those brought in is the perp — the servant Ramullah (Mehra) posing as the owner of a curio shop! But he’s killed inside the station. This part of the investigation was slapstick comedy and ridiculous. There were also a healthy dosage of slurs against the Hindus; such as, the cops saying during the lineup: “They all look alike to me. How many more Ali Babas are there?”

The film was not tightly scripted and it was difficult to keep track of all the suspects. Also, we never learn why the planes are being sabotaged. But the old Chan formula works, as Charlie in the climax sets a trap for the saboteurs. Too many tacked on explanations still can’t clear up all the discrepancies, but that shouldn’t really matter to the die-hard fans of the series.