The Hatchet Man (1932)

The Chinese: A Great Bunch Of Lads

In the beginning of The Hatchet Man, the Chinese community (“Yellow residents” as the opening crawl refers to them as) in San Francisco circa 1918 are a parallel society to the rest of America. However, fast forward to 1932 and the community has moved beyond the Tong wars of the past to a more Americanized and western way of life in which many of the old ways are dismissed such as foot binding and women having less freedom. – Meanwhile, elders in the community hold onto their more old fashioned ways. Instead, we see a community which is becoming integrated into wider society and there are even signs of interracial relationships with mixed couples seen in the dance hall sequence in one of the more insightful films about the oriental to come from this era.

The Hatchet Man is another pre-code William Wellman gem in which the production values, extensive camerawork, and detail in the sets are second to none. The graphic ending is one of the best in pre-code cinema but the scene which I feel best shows of the craftsmanship present in The Hatchet Man is that early in the film in which Wong (Edward G. Robinson) has to kill his best friend and blood brother Sun Yat Ming (J Carroll Nash). At the beginning of this lengthy and slow-paced scene, Sun is finishing writing a will to Wong under the fear that he will be killed by a Tong (“The one I am expecting comes through doors without knocking”). Sun is leaving Wong all his worldly goods and his daughter to become his wife when she is of legal age. Soon Wong arrives and after many gaps in the slowly delivered dialogue with calming Chinese music in the background, the camera does an epic zoom on Robinson as he delivers the fatal line “I am the hatchet man of the Lem-Sing Tong”.

The one drawback of The Hatchet Man is the casting of Edward G Robinson; he isn’t fully convincing in the role of Wong Low Get. Sometimes he looks Asian which his epicanthic fold but not always, not to mention he doesn’t sound particularly Asian which his Eastern European accent. That said if you can suspend your disbelief at Robinson playing an oriental, you’re still left with a performance with the intensity you would expect from Robinson. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell in the cast who is Asian and who is a white actor in makeup. Loretta Young is far more convincing in her role as Wong’s adopted daughter Sun Toya San. Wong’s romantic relationship with his adopted daughter raises many eyebrows from today’s standards not is it ever made clear if she knows this is the man who killed her own father, but this just makes the odd relationship all the more fascinating. Leslie Fenton, on the other hand, is the film’s big scene-stealer as the slim ball villain Harry while Toshia Mori (who was originally to play Loretta Young’s role) as Wong’s secretary is a very striking screen presence.

There is much less focus in Hollywood cinema of Chinese-American gangsters as opposed to Italian-American gangsters; a shame since it’s a fascinating underworld with it prevalent theme of honor.

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The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell-bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world except here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well-known movie doesn’t have a “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A China man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film? Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr. Fu Manchu being the anthesis to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all-round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise, it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.