The way motion pictures depict it, the 1940s was an era when all men wore dapper suits, women fought for their independence while being referred to as "dames," and everyone smoked cigarettes like as if the Surgeon General declared they were good for you. But the nostalgia of 40s era "poverty row" horror and mystery movies still holds a fascination for many. Here, Retromedia presents a triple feature aptly titled "Phantoms of Death": three crime potboilers from the 1940s, one produced by PRC (PHANTOM OF 42ND STREET), the other two for none other than Monogram Pictures. Running around an hour in length each, the three features together are nothing earth-shattering, but make a nice evening's worth of entertainment.
THE PHANTOM OF 42ND STREET (1945) concerns an actor of the famous Moore family who was killed after a stage performance. It is feared that his brother Cecil Moore (Alan Mowbray) and Cecil's daughter Claudia Moore (Kay Aldridge) are to be the next victims, so friendly newspaper drama critic Tony Woolrich (Dave O'Brien, who starred in numerous Bela Lugosi and East Side Kids movies) begins his own investigation with the help of a wisecracking cabbie (Frank Jenks). Although the police claim they found their man after a night watchman is offed, Woolrich maintains that the real killer is still on the loose, and the film ends with an attempt to trap him during a production of "Julius Caesar."
PHANTOM KILLER is from 1942 and naturally, it's directed by the legendary William "One Shot" Beaudine. A remake of Monogram's THE SPHINX (1933) with Lionel Atwill, the film is about wealthy philanthropist John G. Harrison (John Hamilton, best known as Perry White on the 50s "Superman" TV show) , who is believed to be deaf mute, being charged with a series of killings. A young prosecutor (Dick Purcell) believes Harrison is not only the murderer, but that he can hear and speak. His girlfriend is a newspaper woman who also believes in Harrison's innocence, that is until a lieutenant on the case is found dead on the very morning he was to divulge some evidence. Probably the most fun of the three films, it has a piano that unlocks a secret door, a trick ending, and a great cameo by Mantan Moreland as a witness who has the courtroom in hysterics with his replies.
1940's PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN is the last in the "Mr. Wong" series and the only one not to feature Boris Karloff in the lead role. This time, a much younger and authentically Chinese actor, Key Luke (best known for his many 1930s portrayals as Charlie Chan's "Number One Son"), stars as sleuth Jimmy Wong. When archeologist Dr. Benton returns from Mongolia with an ancient scroll, he mysteriously dies during a lecture. Detective Wong is brought in on the case, and gets some help from a police captain who never removes his hat (Grant Withers) and a pretty secretary (Lotus Long) who in fact works for the Chinese government. PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN is considered the best in the series by some, and the worst by others (Leonard Maltin gives it the "bomb" rating in his review book), but you'll have to decide for yourself. Key Luke never did another Wong picture, but he went on to become one of the busiest Hollywood character actors and cartoon voice artists up until his death in 1991.
As these three features are public
domain, there have been other separate budget DVD and VHS releases of them in
the past, but Retromedia presents a nice compact package at a good price. The
transfers are acceptable: PD films often suffer from grain, ugly cue marks,
lines, jump cuts where bits of dialog have been spliced, scratchy sound, etc.
The features here have their fair share of those maladies, but the black and
white images are still enjoyable and very watchable. PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN looks
the best of the bunch being bright, sharp and having the least print damage,
but some minor tinted video noise and artifacting can be seen. Still, this is
a worthwhile collection for B-movie collectors, and although there are no extras,
you still get three features for the price of one. (George
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