When three employees of a bank are found murdered with cobra venom, Charlie Chan connects the homicides to a case he had worked in Shanghai in 1937. Even though he arrested the alleged murderer, whom later escaped from the police, Charlie wouldn't be able to recognize him because, at the time of his apprehension, his badly burned face and hands were swathed in bandages. Although Chan believes he is now involved with a gang that is stealing valuable radium from a bank vault, utilizing tunnels that connect to the area sewer system, his new identity remains a mystery. When a detective disguised as a bank guard is found dead in a tunnel by Birmingham, Charlie knows he's on the right track. Written by
Better Than Most Monogram Chan Films--But That's Not Saying Much
Loosely based on novels by Earl Derr Biggers, 20th Century Fox's Charlie Chan series proved an audience favorite--but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the studio feared audiences would turn against its Asian hero. This was a miscalculation: actor Sidney Toler took the role to "poverty row" Monogram Studios, where he continued to portray the character in eleven more films made between 1944 and his death in 1947.
20th Century Fox had regarded the Chan films as inexpensive "B" movies, but even so the studio took considerable care with them: the plots were often silly, but the pace was sharp, the dialogue witty, and the casts (which featured the likes of Bela Lugosi and Ray Milland) always expert. The result was a kindly charm which has stood the test of time. Monogram was a different matter: Chan films were "B" movies plain and simple. Little care was taken with scripts or cast and resulting films were flat, mediocre at best, virtually unwatchable at worst.
Thanks to an adequate cast and a few interesting plot devices, THE SHANGHAI COBRA is among the best of the Monogram-made Chan films--but even so it barely manages to achieve a consistent mediocrity. In this particularly entry, Chan (Sidney Toler) is called upon to investigate a murderer who kills with what appears to be a cobra-like bite; at the same time, he decides to make certain that a government supply of radium tucked away in a bank vault, of all places, remains secure. Do these two seemingly unrelated plot lines come together? Well... could be! Sidney Toler is always enjoyable as Chan, but most of his Monogram performances seemed "phoned in"--and that is as true of COBRA as it is of any Monogram Chan film. As usual, the really enjoyable performer is Mantan Mooreland. Changing times have led us to look upon Moreland's brand of comedy as demeaning to African-Americans, but he was an expert actor and comic, and taken within the context of what was possible for a black actor in the 1940s his work has tremendous charm and innocence.
Fans of the 20th Century Fox series are likely to find Monogram's Chan a significant disappointment and newcomers who like the Monogram films will probably consider them third-rate after encountering the Fox films. Like other Monogram Chan films, THE SHANGHAI COBRA is best left to determined collectors. Four stars, and that's being generous.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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