After Dangerous Money (1946), this was Sidney Toler’s final Charlie Chan film, and boy, what a weird one. Whereas prior installments usually brought Chan & Co. into the story within minutes, the great detective isn’t called into action until the 12 min. mark, perhaps because Toler’s health may have necessitated a less grueling schedule; and maybe due to the story’s inherent mix of T&A and the need to set up a backstory to get all the characters into one location.
In The Trap, a travelling variety show troupe (under the guidance of a leader known only as ‘Maestro’) is pulled aside by a highway cop for speeding before their journey continues to a series of rented cabanas on a Malibu beach.
During their first night, an underage dancer, blackmailed by a scheming bitch to steal some letters from a trunk, is murdered by a familiar. The highway cop responds to the crime scene, as does Charlie Chan, who believes his No. 2 son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) was the actual victim – a misconception solely the result of chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) mixing up details from a call made by one of the dancers, San Toy (Barbara Jean Wong).
Because the highway cop’s out of his jurisdiction, he defers to Chan, and with the exception of the never-seen coroner who whisks away cadavers, no cops or detectives show up to handle the capital crime, making it clear that in Malibu, a private citizen with a folk reputation in crime solving is allowed to wrangle together a full investigation.
Another dancer is soon found dead (the bitch), and Chan deduces the killer is among them, which leads to gender segregation. No. 2 son + Birmingham Brown aide the cop in supervising and surveilling the troupe, while a trap to catch the real killer is hatched by elder Chan. The eventual unmasking is negligible (it comes straight out of left-field), and while not a good Chan mystery by any means, there’s so much weirdness going on, The Trap is among the series’ most fascinating.
When the troupe arrive, they’re given a chilly greeting by the private resort’s matron, a Ms. Weebles (Minerva Urecal), who starts off as a goofy riff on Rebecca’s eeeevil housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, but is reduced to a little-seen object by the third act. Weebles is a superstitious loon who also dislikes her ‘show people’ guests (Hey! They’re paying your wage! Close up the pie-hole!), and grumbles at every turn.
During a BBQ, where she roasts wieners over a massive dirty flame, racist dancer Clementine (Rita Quigley) discovers the first murder victim in the house. The writers have everyone react with shock and run into the house, but since Weebles is a mere hausfrau (and isn’t germane to the mystery plot), actress Minerva Urecal was told to just shout, fling her white apron over her head, and run off-camera!
Clementine remains paranoid throughout the picture, but her raison d’etre within the plot is to cast suspicion on Chinese-American dancer San Toy. Garroting is apparently a Chinese thing, so the killer has to be the diminutive Toy. Clementine’s hysterics reach beautifully ridiculous proportions as she berates her yellow peril colleague, and refuses to be near her. Toy, who knows of Charlie Chan’s No. 2 son, makes the call because he’s ethnic kin, and might be as cute as she remembers. When the elder Chan arrives, she addresses him in Chinese, which is amusing because American actor Toler probably can’t understand a word she’s saying.
San Toy eventually becomes a potential murder victim because she knew of some sensitive details surrounding ‘the Maestro’, but that feels like another red herring purely to add some stalking scenes. (The first attempt to expunge little Toy involves smothering her with a black towel and ether at the top of a stairwell – methodology that’s never explained, but presumed to incur a potentially deadly tumble.)
The term “garroting” is given prolific usage by the cast, with a French dancer correcting an hysterical Clementine that it’s also a French method of extermination (it’s an exchange designed to show audiences only Clementine is racist); and Chan over-employing the words garroter, garrote, and garrotee as he has No. 2 son and Birmingham re-enacting the murder scene.
To break up the interior set monotony (and undecorated studio walls), the filmmakers made surprisingly good use of primordial Malibu locations – notably its rustic city center, unspoiled coastline, and undeveloped beachfronts. Moreover, once Chan lifts the ban on bathing (bathing?) the girls are allowed to frolic in the ocean again (which lets the filmmakers use up some B-camera footage as well).
Written by Miriam Kissinger (Dangerous Money), The Trap features some awfully derivative dialogue, and it’s fun to watch the clunky plot machinations at work.
Highway cop Reynolds (Kirk Alyn), for example, chases a dancer who breaks curfew to mail a letter; still wary of her motivations, he decides to drive her big car back to the beach house, leaving his motorcycle to be picked up by some never-seen motor pool lackey. Almost every character is allowed to spout personal theories of the killer’s identity, which may serve as a means to characterize the troupe as seething with internecine hostilities, but it also helps cloud audiences with enough babble that they’re likely to give up on making sense of any so-called twists, and be grateful the whole mystery is solved in the finale’s car chase (which starts with a big sedan about to descend over a valley, and is briefly interrupted by an old clunker rolling downward, slightly altering the sequence’s continuity).
Toler’s final Chan isn’t the career swan song fans were hoping for, but the film’s wonkiness provides some amusing moments of befuddlement that make The Trap a guilty pleasure of sorts.
The final six films in Monogram’s bevy of Chan entries starred Roland Winters, beginning with The Chinese Ring (1947).
This title is part of TCM’s Spotlight Collection, which includes Dark Alibi (1946), Dangerous Money (1946), The Trap (1946), and The Chinese Ring (1947).
A previous boxed set from MGM, The Charlie Chan Chantology, featured Charlie Chan In The Secret Service (1944), The Chinese Cat (1944), Meeting At Midnight / aka Black Magic (1945), The Jade Mask (1945), The Scarlet Clue (1945), and The Shanghai Cobra (1944).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan