I would be very surprised if anyone reading this blog has ever heard of The Shanghai Cobra, a very late entry in the Charlie Chan series, produced at Monogram Studios. While its director, Phil Karlson, has received some attention from auteurist critics, he is probably most remembered now for making the first Walking Tall movie in the 1970s. (An achievement which itself is fading into the mists of time.)
Cobra is no masterpiece, but it makes an interesting comparison with other films in the Chan series, particularly those produced at Monogram. The stories of the Chan films underwent a long evolution, beginning with traditional whodunnit mysteries based on the novels by Earl Derr Biggers, but becoming ever more dependent on outlandish situations and debatable comedy. Eventually, there isn’t so much “detection” as a series of arbitrary leaps of insight by Chan and others that tie together equally arbitrary plot points. By the time the series moved from Fox to Monogram, the stories alternated between the routine and the ludicrous.
What even the weakest of the Fox films could boast, however, was the atmospheric lighting and sets made possible by the resources of a major studio. Once confined to the bargain basement at Monogram, the already weak situations and contrived comedy began to creak noticeably. The first of the Monogram Chans, for example, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service looks and feels like a bad stage production, with cardboard sets and high key lighting conceived, presumably, to show off what isn’t present.
Shanghai Cobra is the exception to the generally impoverished and despondent feel of the Monogram Chans, which is what makes it interesting. I don’t know if it had a bigger budget than any of the others. To say it feels as if it did is a compliment to a level of visual invention that makes an entertaining story out of material that is even more elaborately convoluted than usual.
How much Karlson should be credited with this greater texture is debatable, but the film’s virtues—the use of darkness and light, a thoughtful mapping of the narrative space, a sense of appropriate behavior and appearance for the characters, a distinctive use of sets—probably result from the director’s contribution. If Karlson was indeed responsible for the film’s above-average execution, the attention given to his work by auteurist critics is, if not exactly justified, at least understandable.
If auteurists had remained content to find such blossoms in the desert of Hollywood routine, they would deserve thanks for bringing hidden pleasures to light. It was the compulsion to turn those pleasures into treasures, however, that gave auteurism a bad name. For no matter how skillful Karlson’s contributions to Shanghai Cobra may be, the film is still a poverty row programmer. If it can boast an inventive use of limited resources, it also inevitably makes you wonder what Karlson could have done under more charmed circumstances.