Charlie Chan at the Olympics

I never thought I'd see a Charlie Chan film - much less at Sydney University, but here it was! And what a surprise! The film is packed with electronic gadgets, which were apparently an obsession of the director, H Bruce Humberstone. It even has a trip on the Zeppelin Hindenberg, which Charlie takes from Lakehurst, New Jersey, across the Atlantic Ocean to Friedrichschafen in Germany, in a trip lasting 61 hours. This was a publicity stunt which unfortunately backfired when the real Zeppelin blew up when it returned to New Jersey. Of course this is fascinating now, in retrospect. But best of all is the inserted newsreel footage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, showing Jesse Owens and the rest of the US relay team winning gold medals, and a runner from New Zealand also winning gold!

Charlie himself was played by Warner Oland, a Swedish actor. To my surprise, he didn't look too bad as the Chinese detective, and what is more, no one says or does anything remotely racist or patronising to Charlie or his two sons. Of course, that is just my opinion - others may disagree. But I am usually pretty sensitive to that sort of thing, and I didn't find anything too questionable here. Charlie's eldest son is a member of the American swim team, and actually wins a gold medal. But nobody says anything about his ethnic origins - mind you, there is a girl he doesn't get. He's not even in competition for her. Maybe that's a subltle form of discrimination. but you have to look pretty hard for it.

The other interesting aspect to this film is the treatment of the Germans. This film was released in 1937, when America was isolationist. The Germans are treated fairly neutrally, except for the German police, who wear silly spiked hats and are a bit like the Keystone Cops. But they are redeemed a bit in the end, and made more human through acquiring senses of humour. This is a million miles from the evil Nazis of 1942's Quiet Please, Murder.
The Spiral Staircase
I hadn't seen this classic for around 20 years, and only then on TV, so it was good to see it on the big screen. Stunningly directed by Robert Siodmak, with superbly creepy music by Roy Webb, and murky, shadowy, Gothic cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, this film still frightens the daylights out of you.

The producer at RKO for this 1946 classic was Dore Schary, who later headed up MGM. Robert Siodmak, a German director steeped in the shadows and angles of German expressionism brought his considerable skill to this old-dark-house-style thriller. Schary and Musuraca love the shadows so much that even in the final scene, when the tension is over, the telephone is duplicated in a huge misshapen shadow.

Dorothy McGuire gives a lovely, sensitive performance as the mute servant. Her final scenes are quite heartbreaking. Ethel Barrymore stands out as Mrs Warren. She brings a certain sense of strength mingled with mystery, so she keeps you guessing til the end. Elsa Lanchester does a wonderul turn as a tippling servant. And Myrna Dell turns up again in a bit part as a victim.

The way the director and the cinematographer photograph the three staircases in the house provide endless delights for the eye. But the best, and most horrific, is that of the killer's eye. That one haunts you long after the film has ended.