Many critics regard this one (number 22 of the 48-picture series) as the best of the Charlie Chan series, though I prefer John Larkin’s later script, Dead Men Tell. My problem here is the comic relief. Although it is certainly muted by comparison with some of the other Chans, this one still has too much "comedy" for my taste. True, it is not overly obtrusive, nor is it misplaced. I don’t object to comic relief. I use it myself in my "Merryll Manning" mystery thrillers. The trouble with Treasure Island, is that it just isn’t funny. And this time it involves not just Jimmy Chan bumbling around all over the place, but Donald MacBride and his flatfooted detectives, plus Wally Vernon as a "feed-my-tape-worm" (the one remotely funny line in the film) offsider of the romantic lead, Cesar Romero.
Even Charlie’s characteristically acute aphorisms here seem rather obvious ("To destroy false prophet, must first unmask him before eyes of believers") or half-baked ["Do not challenge supernatural unless armed with sword of truth"). This lack in both quantity and quality forces Sidney Toler to fall back on meaningless mannerisms. His performance is all shuffles and smiles. Treasure Island cannot go down as one of his best acting forays in the series, though, mind you, he is certainly more than adequate.
It is actually Cesar Romero’s portrayal that ranks as the really disappointing piece of acting in this picture. Somehow he completely misses the depth and subtlety of the character — whether from sheer incompetence or just a desire to play it safe, it’s impossible to tell.
Fortunately, Pauline Moore, ably assisted by the photographer’s clever lighting, flattering yet slightly weird make-up and hair styling, plus an absolutely smashing gown, comes to the histrionic rescue. Not only does she make a lasting impression as the mind-reader, she provides one of the most memorable studies in the entire series. The remaining girls are not backward either. I particularly enjoyed Billie Seward’s impression of a dubious society beauty and June Gale’s duped knife-thrower.
Among other ultra-competent cameos from the support cast, must be counted Douglass Dumbrille’s smooth reading of an insurance man — Douglass pre-empts most of the reaction shots, but he is really too suave a red herring to be counted as a suspect. Gerald Mohr, assisted by a superbly proportioned costume and mask, is outstanding as Dr Zodiac, assuming an eerily deep, Orson Welles-type voice. Trevor Bardette makes an impressively sinister sidekick. But Douglas Fowley’s over-brash, self-serving reporter was much less to my liking. Fowley is at his best as a heavy. Here, he is supposed to be sympathetic.
Treasure Island is a Charlie Chan in which the setting and the off-beat plot are all-important. They give rise to some delightfully bizarre effects during a séance, which leads into a really stunning climax involving a levitation, a knife-thrower and a mind-reader. Virgil Miller’s dazzling camerawork with its glossy blacks and deep shadows, its rim-lit close-ups and frightening shots of the killer’s eyes, propels the viewer right into the action. Norman Foster’s direction also rises to the occasion during special sequences, though it is not as consistent a joy as the lighting camerawork which always presents a most attractive sheen to even the most humdrum sequences, such as Charlie’s berating number-two-son for his risible "disguise".
Production values rate first-class honors. Deft film editing, fine sets, and an always appropriate music score are especially to be commended.