James Lee Wong first reached the silver screen in 1938, in the aptly named “Mr. Wong, Detective.” Wong was already widely popular through stories in Colier Magazine. Known as San Francisco’s “famous Chinese sleuth”, Wong was created by writer Hugh Wiley. His articles were consolidated and later released in a work titled “Murder by the Dozen.” Wong soon made his way to the silver screen, in answer to the popularity of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto franchises.
Boris Karloff portrayed Wong, and was occasionally joined by Marjorie Reynolds in the role of reporter Bobbie Logan. During this period in Hollywood, it wasn’t uncommon for Caucasian actors to portray Asian lead roles. Keye Luke would later portray Wong; the Asian man playing an Asian lead was an unusual situation for the time.
In “Doomed to Die”, Wong and Logan investigate the murder of a shipping magnate. The film opens with headlines reporting the burning and sinking of a large cruise ship called the Wentworth Castle. 400 lives were lost in the accident, leaving plenty of suspects looking for revenge. Cyrus Wentworth, the head of the shipping company, has problems of his own. His largest rival, Paul Fleming, wants to buy out his company, and Fleming’s son wants to marry Wentworth’s daughter, Cynthia. The younger Fleming comes to meet with Cyrus, who is shot and murdered.
The local police pick up young Fleming and imprison him. Logan calls Wong, who starts prying into the case from a different angle. Before viewers can say “it’s just a flesh wound”, Wong is shot at, the police are involved in a high-speed chase, and new suspects come to light. Fleming and Wentworth’s former right hand man, Matthews, enter an uncomfortable blackmail arrangement. The police pick up Wentworth’s no-good, tight-lipped chauffeur, Ludlow.
Viewers get the mean-spirited chauffeur, the elder and younger Flemings, a Chinese smuggling plot, the blackmailer and even suicide as potential angles for Wentworth’s killing. The payoff neatly ties all the loose strings together, in typical B-movie detective story fashion.
“Doomed to Die” has an interesting pacing. Wong’s soft-spoken investigation plays counterpoint to the bickering between Logan and Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers). Wong always seems to be a step ahead, while Street is usually running around, chasing shadows. Reynolds gets full marks for juggling the two different relationships. The final Wong film starring Karloff, this is generally regarded as the best in the six-film franchise.
Karloff had already achieved international fame as Frankenstein’s monster before embarking on the Wong franchise. Wong’s use of a cane can be linked to Karloff’s back problems that plagued him the remainder of his life until his passing in 1969. Reynolds had some acting experience before this film, but her big break would come opposite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in 1942’s “Holiday Inn.” She would also draw a great deal of fame as William Bendix’s better half in “The Life of Riley.”
“Doomed to Die” is available as part of the Treeline Films 12-disk DVD collection titled “50 Movie Pack: Horror Classics" and on budget DVD from Alpha Video.