A three-film collection on one DVD-R, including West of Shanghai (64 min., 1937), The Invisible Menace (55 min., 1938), and Devil’s Island (62 min., 1939). A Warner Archive release, www.warnerarchive.com.
Karloff as Fang in West of Shanghai
In a “sequel” to last edition’s review of his autumnal highlight The Sorcerers, I picked up a set that harks back to the salad days of the horror star, in between TheBride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) for Universal. While Karloff continued to work for the studio, it was in this period that he made films in his native England, dabbled in horror for Columbia (as good and evil twins in The Black Room), and commenced the popular “Mr. Wong” detective series for Monogram. He also appeared in a quartet of movies released through Warner Bros., only one of which, the Michael Curtiz-directed The Walking Dead (1936), was in the genre he was most associated with.
With that more exploitable title already in release on DVD, this trio fills in some blanks on his résumé. I doubt any have been seen much since the early Seventies, when they inevitably disappointed fans looking for a few undiscovered thrills on the Late Show or the horror movie packages on syndicated TV that they might have strayed into. Presented in as-is transfers, which is to say watchable without remastering, the films do offer looks at other facets of Karloff’s talent.
Based on forgotten plays, West of Shanghai and The Invisible Menace were adapted by Crane Wilbur, who had been writing, directing, and acting in movies since 1910, and directed by John Farrow, who would find his niche in noirs like The Big Clock (1948) and His Kind of Woman (1951). Changing the play’s locale from Mexico to China allowed Karloff to play one of his Oriental characters in Shanghai, following the success of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and preceding his six-film stint as Mr. Wong.
Encased in makeup and speaking in a clipped accent (he says “Dang!” a lot), Karloff is Fang, “the White Tiger of the North,” a warlord whose presence proves inconvenient for rival oil wildcatters. It’s more a matter of insinuation, however, as Fang toys with his American guests amidst a murder mystery. There’s threat in his flirtation with the wife of one of the oil-company reps, but only a tease; Karloff’s take on the character is more urbane and comic than sinister, and if you can forgive the convention of yellow face, he’s amusing to watch once he enters the scene, some twenty minutes in. Otherwise, West of Shanghai is constrained by its brief running time and Hollywood’s changing mores, which perhaps mandated a milder characterization. You sit there thinking, “If only this was pre-Code…”
Karloff in The Invisible Menace
A movie that has trouble sustaining a mere fifty-five minutes, The Invisible Menace is the sort of mystery that TV would kill off. You can see where the commercial breaks might go as Karloff, who may as well be wearing a sandwich board reading “Red Herring,” skulks through a melodrama set at a secret military base. Ghastly comic relief from squeaky-voiced comedienne Marie Wilson and a general air of rush job crush foggy production design and the bare bones of a subplot involving voodoo and Karloff’s adulterous marriage. The actor creates sympathy for his brusque but misjudged construction supervisor, as close to a “normal guy” as Karloff ever played, but you’re more likely to feel sympathy for a star handed a bum assignment.
Do stick around, however, for the third and best film in the set, Devil’s Island. The director, William Clemens, knew how to structure and pace a one-hour production, having worked on the studio’s popular Nancy Drew, Torchy Blane, and Perry Mason series. Unlike its furtively plotted set mates, the movie sticks to its subject, and in James Stephenson (who would costar in William Wyler’s The Letter) gives Karloff someone of stature to share scenes with as opposed to nonentities.
Part of a penal cycle that included John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island and Warner’s prestigious The Life of Emile Zola, Devil’s, Island casts Karloff as a French neurosurgeon, Gaudet, who aids a friend who had been sentenced to the infamous penal colony, but was injured trying to escape the long arm of the law. That arm then taps Gaudet, who is convicted of treason and sent abroad. Island commandant Lucien (Stephenson) informs Gaudet that he is no longer a doctor, but his compassion rouses his fellow prisoners, who are used as slave labor. When Lucien’s daughter is grievously injured in an accident, he is obliged to use Gaudet’s skills, and then betrays the doctor. Retribution is in store, but the means are legal, and moral.
Filmed as France was reconsidering its use of Devil’s Island as a penitentiary (it was closed in 1953), the movie is apolitical, and of the “one bad apple” school of social-condition movies, with Lucien the whipping boy for every ill. But Stephenson gives a restrained performance as the corrupted official, who is difficult for Gaudet to make a case against. Quietly forceful, Karloff makes a case for himself as a crusader for justice, and invests Gaudet with dignity. He earns the kiss he gets at the end of the film.
In April, Sony and Turner Classic Movies will release on DVD another three-film set, Karloff: Criminal Mind. Drawn from the actor’s rising star period in 1931–1932, it features Behind the Mask, The Guilty Generation, and Howard Hawks’s The Criminal Code, which Karloff wistfully watches on TV in his final masterpiece, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). Karloffians will want to have both, if only to see how the movies’ most famous monster spent his off hours.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.