An ocean liner sinks off Honolulu and Allen Colby, heir to millions, is presumed dead...but local sleuth Charlie Chan is not so sure, and flies to San Francisco to investigate further. Somehow, the missing Colby is there ahead of him...but is knifed in the back before seeing anyone. Further events revolve around spiritualist Mrs. Lowell, her family of suspicious characters, and the spooky, untenanted Colby mansion, where the body turns up during a seance! Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Missing for seven years, Allen Colby, heir to his father's fortune is no longer welcome at the Colby/Lowell home. His arrival would mean that the supply of funds doled out by his father's estate under matriarch Henrietta Lowell, Bernard Colby's sister, would come to an abrupt halt. Henrietta has an abiding interest in all things psychic, and has spent nearly one hundred thousand dollars on psychic research, séances, and payments to Professor Bowen and wife Carlotta to stay in touch with the dead.
Although it's presumed Allen Colby drowned when a cruise ship went down, detective Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) has his doubts. With no body, and a recovered briefcase bearing the initials "A.C.", Chan believes the missing heir will show up. Indeed he does, but not as expected. Gaining entrance to the old Colby homestead, Allen is quickly dispatched by a knife in the back thrown from a parlor trapdoor. His corpse does make an appearance though, at a scheduled séance meant to determine his fate. With Colby truly gone, the remaining Colby/Lowell heirs can gain some measure of satisfaction - or can they?
The film does a nice job of presenting a number of possible suspects to the Colby murder. Attorney Warren Phelps, the administrator of the Colby fortune stands to lose a substantial portion of his income from fees paid for his services. Henrietta Lowell would lose all of her psychic research funding, and her two daughters would be cut off as well. Accordingly, Professor Bowen and wife Carlotta would no longer enjoy their séance income if Allen Colby showed up to claim his inheritance. And for good measure, the film offers caretaker Ulrich as a suspect; his daughter was in love with Colby years ago, but died some time after Colby disappeared seven years earlier.
Charlie Chan approaches the case methodically, and begins to unravel the case a step at a time. When he demonstrates to Mrs. Lowell how the séances were rigged by the Bowen's, she becomes a loyal ally to uncover the mystery, to the point of faking her own death when the killer lashes out. But with all the meticulous work done in laying out the suspects, the identity of the real murderer still comes as a surprise at the end. In typical Chan fashion, the killer had a stake in Colby's disappearance, but there were no real clues to implicate him throughout the film.
With no Chan family members on board for this film, the comic relief is handled by Lowell butler Baxter, nervously but effectively portrayed by Herbert Mundin. As if to lend further credibility to mysterious psychic forces at work in the Colby House, a black cat named Lucifer snarls his way into a couple of well placed scenes. Sufficiently dark and moody, "Charlie Chan's Secret" is a well told mystery that nicely complements other films in the Chan series.
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