One of the wonderful things about home video is the way it makes it possible to treat the history of cinema as a personal library. Of course, you are limited to those films that have survived physically, released on video and made publicly available. There are still huge gaps, in other words, but overall, you have access to a range of titles which even the most prestigious revival theaters could never attempt.
Something like Mr. Wong, Detective is a good example of the marginal pleasures that access can provide. The first in a series of programmers made for Monogram, starring Boris Karloff as the detective, Wong is no undiscovered masterpiece and wishful thinking will not turn it into a lost treasure. It nonetheless involves an entertaining puzzle, with a surprisingly sophisticated visual style. The story creaks along with aching implausibilities, but the filmmaking is just snappy enough for us to overlook them.
Given the central conceit of a Chinese-American detective impersonated by a white actor, the inevitable point of comparison is the Charlie Chan series. As in the Chan films, Wong is always one step ahead of everyone else, presumably because he’s read the script. The major conceptual difference is that Chan is a self-consciously “normal” (i.e., American) character, an unassuming family man who happens to be a brilliant detective, otherwise “just like us,” unthreatening, banal, cute. Wong, on the other hand, is a manicured sophisticate, an embodiment of the “mysteries of the Orient,” mannered, erudite and upper-class. He is obviously foreign (although unlike Chan, he speaks English perfectly), a touch too exotic not to threaten Middle American expectations a little, more to be feared than patronized.
The story is pure hokum. An industrialist is killed in his office at a moment when he was alone, so much of the action revolves around figuring out the how as much as the who. Wong is, of course, the only one to notice the tell-tale clues that everyone else ignores and equally inevitably is the one to reveal the killer. The plot holes are as big as Mac trucks and the contrivances more complicated than a Rube Goldberg machine, but the film remains engaging in a pleasantly gamy way. And the prestidigitation does succeed in one all important task: it elaborately obfuscates the solution to the mystery, so that when the the killer is revealed, his identity comes as a bit of a surprise. That’s certainly more than can be said for the Chan series, in which it was notoriously easy to figure out whodunnit well before any of the characters, including the detective.
Mr. Wong, Detective is, in other words, testimony to how even the lowest rungs of the creative ladder during Hollywood’s heyday could provide inventive, entertaining distraction. The film is not high art, nor even particularly slick craft, but it certainly provides a compelling hour’s plus diversion.