When 20th Century Fox decided that their long-running Charlie Chan series was no longer a viable commodity after 11 years, their Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler, bought the rights to the character and proceeded to shop the property around. What looked like small potatoes to Fox looked pretty appealing to little Monogram Pictures, which was just getting by on Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. Mysteries were a good bet for the studio, because they could be made quickly and cheaply — and with Toler and the Chan character to boost interest, it was a natural.
But it was also the world of Monogram. This meant that budgets were really low, the screenplays often slapdash, the direction rarely more than workman-like, and the product pitched to a slightly different market. With this last factor in mind, Charlie was given a second sidekick, a chauffeur named Birmingham Brown who was played by the great black comedian Mantan Moreland. His presence — high in the cast list — guaranteed the films’ popularity in predominately black markets. Moreland was all in all an agreeable addition to the series, his comedy helping to smooth over some of the production limitations.
Few of the Monogram films could be called great, but most of them are enjoyable. The Shanghai Cobra — along with Dark Alibi — is easily the best of the lot, thanks in no small part to the direction of Phil Karlson, who went on to a more illustrious career. Here, he makes a virtue of the low budget, creating a film largely set in a grubby world of seedy restaurants and rainy streets — saving his limited resources for a few surprisingly impressive sets. What Karlson ended up with is the world’s only Charlie Chan film noir.
As is often the case with the Monogram Chan films scripted by George Callahan, the story alternates between verging on incoherence and more than verging on the absurd — both of which can be seen as pluses, depending on your outlook. But the fun of The Shanghai Cobra lies in the playing of Toler and Moreland, and to a lesser extent Benson Fong as Charlie’s No. 3 son, Tommy (though Fong was never as appealing a player as Keye Luke or Sen Yung).
Plus, there’s a murder method that has to be seen to be believed!
— reviewed by Ken Hanke