All this talk of "phantoms" and nary a mask hiding a horribly disfigured face. Neither Judge Dennis Prince, Gaston Leroux, nor Andrew Lloyd Webber could be reached for comment.
A rather lukewarm cup of noir that most assuredly served as the final resting place of a discarded cigarette butt.
Sporting a rogue's gallery of two-bit losers, dangerous dames, and disillusioned detectives ready to turn in their badges in a final fit of defiance, the pulpy crime dramas of the 1940s literally saturated the cinematic air with their starkly paranoid perspectives and almost suffocating atmospheres of fear and distrust. Naturally, every cut-rate motion picture studio clamored to pitch their entries into the fray, eager to snatch even a tiny slice of the success enjoyed by noir classics like 1941's The Maltese Falcon, 1946's The Blue Dahlia and 1948's The Naked City. Sadly, many noir wannabe pictures were seemingly destined to be sliced away and cast into the dark void of aspiring imitators. But, thanks to the pervasiveness of DVD, these "also-ran" crime-detective copycats are finding their way out of the depths and into your play tray.
Facts of the Case
First up in this triple feature is 1942's The Phantom Killer, eked out by Monogram Studios and helmed by director William Beaudine. It seems there's a mysterious killer on the loose who's partial to strangling his victims while leaving no clues. Prosecutor Ed Clark (Dick Purcell) is ready to pin the crimes on wealthy deaf-mute philanthropist John G. Harrison (John Hamilton) after a janitor makes a court-sworn positive identification. Clark's boss is ready to tell his irascible intern to take a powder for attempting to make such an outrageous claim stick. Clark's fiancée, the irrepressible Barbara Mason (Joan Woodbury), manages to sidle up close to Harrison by agreeing to write his autobiography, and ultimately serves as an unwitting foil to expose the millionaire's dubious double life.
Next is 1940's The Phantom of Chinatown, featuring Asian sleuth James Lee Wong; this time, Keye Luke plays the role formerly made popular by the likes of Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi. Set in San Francisco's Chinatown, mystery and murder surround a sacred Chinese scroll that bears the secrets to an all-powerful eternal flame. Wong series regular Grant Withers is present as the slightly inept Detective Street, who needs Wong's steady calm and piercing attention to detail to crack the case.
Last up is 1945'sThe Phantom of 42nd Street, which drops theater critic-turned-detective Tony Woolrich (Dave O'Brien) into the middle of a thespian thriller. Pushed to pursue the murder mystery by his editor and egged on by his Cabbie Friday (Frank Jenks), Woolrich infiltrates a bawdy backstage world where a costumed killer is handily dispatching cast and crew, leaving a note neatly pinned to each body. Though it seems star actor and theater owner Cecil Moore is the killer's prime target, Woolrich soon discovers that the entire Moore clan is being set up for a final curtain call.
It's a melodramatic three-way that hopes to collectively muster up a resonant amount of grit and guts in order to be considered noir-worthy.
Nice try, Mac—but no dice.
Really, these three would-be thrillers aren't terribly bad, and as each clocks in at roughly an hour each, the action unfolds at a reasonably rapid pace. While none are particularly noteworthy entries in the realm of the noir sub-genre, they do their best to emulate the top pictures of their day. There are the requisite dark interiors, piercing blades of light, gunplay a-plenty, saucy dames, and stumbling stoolies. Although each film does its best to copy the noir formula, the result is about two clues short of unraveling what made the truly great pictures of the day work so well. Too often dialogue is stilted, and sometimes just unbearably amateurish, in both content and delivery. The minimalist runtimes, though they help move the plot along, seem to have also hurried them a bit too much, causing the characters and events to swirl somewhat out of control, with all three reaching hasty and quickly-explained conclusions.
All three pictures on this Retromedia (Image) Entertainment disc look pretty bad; the source prints are apparently in varying states of completeness and clarity. Each looks much too soft, "detail" apparently having been left out of the budget for these transfers. The contrast and brightness alternate in a strobe-like manner throughout, and just barely manage to escape being branded unwatchable. As far as source material, The Phantom Killer suffers from numerous missing frames, especially an opening segment where we're immediately greeted by faint images of two characters fading into a dissolve. We're never certain what transpired and how important it might have been to the plot, because we jump to Clark's office immediately thereafter. From there, chunks of dialogue are frequently missing as the narrative leaps and jumps about, almost as if the source material had come from a greasy paper sack found in a back alley. The Phantom of Chinatown fares a bit better, since it isn't plagued by these numerous unintentional edits. Missing scenes of the first feature not withstanding, The Phantom of 42nd Street is the worst of the lot, looking as if it were filmed from the bottom of an inkwell. The murky darkness of the image completely obscures much of the content, and will remind you of the late-night melodramas you suffered through on your flickering black-and-white TVs from several decades ago. The audio is presented in a sometimes muddied, sometimes shrill Dolby Digital Mono track that seems to fit the crime on display here. There are no extra features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, this isn't top-notch noir and it's quite a low-brow DVD presentation, really, but there's a certain amount of entertainment that you can still wrest out of it if you try. Think about watching this on a rainy day when there's nothing better to do, or as an excuse to avoid raking the leaves out back, or as a pleasant way to amuse yourself after having your wisdom teeth pulled but before the nitrous oxide completely wears off. You get the idea—this is a disc to look at during one of those unfettered moments of your life, when some throwback entertainment might serve as an unexpected respite from all the pomp and bombast of the usual "big ticket" titles.
Though they're not the best of the crime/detective/murder-mystery crop, there's some fun to be had here. Look closely at the character of John G. Harrison from The Phantom Killer and he'll give you fits trying to remember where else you've seen the actor, John Hamilton. Think hard…That's right, he was none other than Perry White, Clark Kent's boss at the Daily Planet in TV's Superman. Now take a close look at the character of Tony Woolrich from The Phantom of 42nd Street and you'll know you've seen that Dave O'Brien actor somewhere, sometime. Peer deeply through the cloud of smoke in your memory and you'll recall him as the wild-eyed pot monger, Ralph Wiley, from Reefer Madness. ("Mae! Mae! Bring me some reefers!"). He's actually sort of fun to watch here, turning on the charm and brandishing a playful smirk and dimple throughout the proceedings (but you know he's just aching for a toke). Maybe this is reaching a bit, but if you go along for the ride here, dropping your expectations considerably lower than usual, you may wind up enjoying the disc, if only just a little bit. And, as each feature is just about an hour long, the show ends before you can become completely bored or otherwise indifferent.
Normally a presentation like this would raise the hackles on the back of my neck. Yet, for some reason, I was so unaffected by this disc, it really doesn't amount to a hill of beans. If you're an ardent fan of anyone connected with the three films here—well, knock yourself out. Otherwise, move on to the real noir that's readily available on DVD.
Though a disc of such inferior quality would typically incur immediate conviction and incarceration, the misguided team at Retromedia is let off due to the petty content found within. Next time, take a case like this to Small Claims, just down the hall past the restrooms. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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