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Retromedia presents
Phantoms of Death Triple Feature: The Phantom of 42nd Street / Phantom Killer / Phantom of Chinatown (1940-1945)

"A thousand fingerprints, twenty-five suspects, Chinese temples, a missing scroll, an Eternal Fire....What a case!"
- Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: June 21, 2004

Stars: Dave O'Brien, Kay Aldridge, Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Keye Luke
Other Stars: Alan Mowbray, Frank Jenks, John Hamilton, Mantan Moreland, Grant Withers, Lotus Long
Director: Albert Herman, William Beaudine, Phil Rosen

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, racial humor)
Run Time: 02h:52m:11s
Release Date: June 08, 2004
UPC: 014381249323
Genre: mystery

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Thanks to such films as The Phantom of the Opera, the word "phantom" is firmly associated with mystery and romantic suspense. That association is capitalized upon by these three phantasmal mystery pictures from the lowest dregs of 1940s Poverty Row studios. But what they lack in budget they can make up for in snappy dialogue, which of course, didn't cost much.

The Phantom of 42nd Street (1945) features a rather unlikely detective team: drama critic Tony Woolrich (Dave O'Brien) and cabdriver Romeo (Frank Jenks). The clueless Woolrich has brought Romeo with him to a premiere that's spoiled by the uncle of the leading lady, Claudia Moore (Kay Aldridge) turning up hanged in the wings. Woolrich is only interested in writing his review until his editor insists that he cover the crime with his theater connections. Before long others in the theatrical world turn up dead, all with notes referencing Captain Kidd, and it falls to the unlikely pair to attempt to unravel the mystery.

Like the others on this disc, this picture, originally released by PRC, is only about an hour long, but as a programmatic filler it's perfectly adequate. The jaunty wit of the dialogue is held down a bit by large chunks of clumsy exposition, and the relationship between the critic and the cabbie is less than clear, but they both manage to contribute to the solution of the mystery in their own ways.

The other two films have a bit more of a supernatural overtone, with Phantom Killer (!942), a remake of The Sphinx (1933) being the more entertaining of the two. Crusading assistant D.A. Edward A. Clark (Dick Purcell) is convinced that rich philanthropist John G. Harrison (John Hamilton) is the killer in a series of murders of financiers along the east coast, and brings him to trial. But not only does Harrison have a rock-solid alibi, but the star witness insists that the deaf-mute Harrison spoke to him. Crusading reporter Barbara Mason (Joan Woodbury) is along for the ride mostly to get into trouble and make fun of Clark's insistence on the rich man's guilt.

Directed by the notorious William "One-Shot" Beaudine, this is pretty fun despite a general disregard of courtroom tactics. Dripping with chuckle-inducing chatter, it's a parallel to the locked-room genre of mystery, with the crime being obvious but the method escaping the police. There's some amusing comic police work with Warren Hymer that will appeal to fans of the humor of stupidity. The picture is liberally larded with topical references to the war, including the Japanese navy and the defeated French. A few bits of decently-generated suspense surround a mysterious grand piano. Clark has an appealing earnestness, but Woodbury's a stiff that really drags things down. Mantan Moreland gets fourth billing as the star witness, despite having under five minutes of screen time. He's excellent as usual, though the more sensitive may be offended by his schtick with its racist overtones. But it's tough to get too worked up because his comic timing is just too good. Unfortunately, since this is a TV print, it's cut down from its full 61minutes to 53 minutes and change to allow it to fit into an hour timeslotwith commercials. That doesn't help the coherence factor any.

Wrapping up the triple phantom feature is the last and the least of the Mr. Wong mysteries from Monogram, Phantom of Chinatown (1940). Although Boris Karloff had taken the role of magazine detective James Lee Wong in the first five pictures, his contract with Monogram was up just in time for his career to revive in the horror boom of the early 1940s. So poor Keye Luke was stuck with the lead role of son Jimmy Wong in this dreary time-waster. Professor Benton has returned from the Orient only to be murdered while giving a lecture about his excavations. A mysterious scroll from the tomb of a Ming emperor relating to the Eternal Fire vanishes, and Jimmy has to work with incompetent police captain Sam Street (once again Grant Withers) to untangle the dangers of Chinatown and find the valuable scroll and its secrets.

Although none of the three films holds together under close inspection, this is the flimsiest of the trio, with numerous logical gaps that seem to be glossed over. Withers is moderately entertaining as usual, but nothing special. Lotus Long makes for a decently mysterious woman who may be a help to Wong or may be a femme fatale. Although Luke is ethnically a step up from Karloff for the role, he's stuck with a bad script. There's a particularly embarrassing bit of fortune-cookie dialogue in a phone conversation between Jimmy and a temple elder that is vomitously over the top. But the story's uninvolving and frankly one doesn't care what happens, even if you can make out the story.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame prints all seem to be transferred from 16mm television prints. In particular, 42nd Street and Phantom Killer tend to be very splicey in the early going, making it difficult to make out bits of the story. Other than Chinatown, they tend to be contrasty, with little shadow detail or fine detail. The finale of 42nd Street is so dark as to be well-nigh unreadable. Black levels are OK, though the picture is a bit soft. Scratches are commonplace, and aliasing is frequently visible. The Wong film is in pretty good shape and looks much better than the other two; it's a shame it's not a better movie.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono is, unsurprisingly, hissy, noisy and tinny. Phantom Killer features irritating clicks and pops thorughout. Despite all the racket, the dialogue is clear enough, when it's not obliterated by the spliciness of these prints.

Audio Transfer Grade: D


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 32m31s of Chinatown

Extras Review: Retromedia provides exactly nothing in the way of extras. Chaptering is an inadequate 6 stops per film.

Extras Grade: F


Final Comments

Marginal TV prints and no extras make this maybe worth a rental. While these cheapie mysteries sure aren't Preston Sturges, they do have their share of crisp and humorous dialogue that makes at least the first two entries endurable.


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