Saturday, January 3, 2009


The 1935 Monogram Pictures' release "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" (**1/2 out of ****),with Bela Lugosi and Wallace Ford, clearly didn't deserve any Oscars, but neither does director William Nigh's poverty-row crime thriller qualify as ghastly. This low-budget, black & white whodunit about a series of murders occurring in the Chinatown section of an anonymous metropolitan American city is incorrigibly xenophobic. Remember, when this movie came out, Americans harbored paranoid fears about the so-called 'Yellow Peril' that Chinese immigrants represented as they poured into the west coast. Any multi-culturally minded liberals who partake of "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" are going to be not only appalled but also offended this movie's conspicuous, racially charged invective.

Clocking in at a meager 63 minutes, this melodrama never wears out its welcome. Prolific director William Nigh, who helmed 120 movies in a career spanning thirty-four years, and his writers keep things clicking. Lew Levenson adapted author Harry Stephen Keeler's story "The Twelve Coins of Confucius," and Nina Howatt penned the screenplay with James Herbuveaux contributing additional dialogue. Neither Howatt nor Herbuveaux wrote anything after "The Mysterious Mr. Wong," but the dialogue sounds pretty snappy, slang-riddled, but quotable. The action itself resembles a twelve chapter serial pared down to the bare essentials. Secret passageways, concealed doors, underground sanctums, exotic coins, and torture chambers permeate this yarn.

"The Mysterious Mr. Wong" opens with expository information from an encyclopedia about the fabled twelve coins of Confucius and how the person who possesses them will rule a province called Keelat. A newspaper story about a murder appears next. Indeed, newspaper accounts of homicides in Chinatown recur throughout the film. Three slayings occur in rapid succession in the first few minutes. The police believe that the Tongs are on the warpath. The first victim staggers out into a street and collapses. A man searches his body, finds a perforated coin, and plants a note with a Chinese letter on the corpse. The second victim has been hanged and hands rifle his pockets to acquire a coin. The third man is strangled as he sleeps—yes, he is strangled perhaps too quickly, but the Production Code censors might have forced Nigh to accelerate this lurid death scene—and hands plunder his body, extract the coin from a shoe and leave the usual note on his body. Meanwhile, agents of the Keelat province show up in town to thwart Mr. Wong. Phillip Tsang (E. Alyn Warren of "Chinatown Squad") heads up the operation. Eventually, Tsang crosses paths with Mr. Wong and Wong takes him hostage.

A cynical newspaper reporter, Jason Barton (Wallace Ford of "Freaks"), investigates these murders. The authorities are convinced that the Tongs are responsible. Barton disagrees in a news story, and his editor Steve Brandon (Lee Shumway of "The Lone Star Ranger"), packs him off to find a Chinaman named Wong. "Did you ever run into a Chinaman by the name of Wong?" Brandon inquires. "Have I ever run into any that ain't named Wong?" Barton retorts. Our journalistic hero ventures into Sam Toy's Laundry where he encounters an Irish cop, Officer 'Mac' McGillicuddy (Robert Emmett 0'Conner of "Picture Snatcher"), who seems to be the only policeman walking a beat in the district. He shares Barton's racism and refers to the Chinese as "monkeys." None of the other reporters are interested in the murder. Barton checks over the body and learns that Toy died with a pencil in his hand. A breeze blows through the laundry when Mac opens the door and Barton finds a message written in Chinese. He visits the herb shop of Mr. Lysee (Bela Lugosi), but Lysee plays dumb when Barton quizzes him. Barton visits a nearby university where Professor Chan Fu (Luke Chan) works as a translator. Lysee sends one of his minions to steal the note from Barton, but Barton eludes him. Later, Barton ransacks Toy's laundry and finds the last coin, but an assailant gets the drop on Barton and steals the last coin. When Barton recovers, he learns another Chinaman has died. "Say, this is getting monotonous," Barton complains, "I'm supposed to bring in real live news, the best I can do is run down dead Chinamen." Later, Barton and the newspaper switchboard operator, Peg (Arlene Judge of "Flying Devils"), have dinner in a restaurant and Barton discovers that the man who stole the coin from him is trying to return it. This man dies in the booth next to Barton and Peg. Afterward, Mr. Wong's murderous minions capture Barton and Peg. Eventually, Wong takes them to his underground torture chamber where he plans to stick bamboo shafts up Peg's finger nails unless the reticent Barton surrenders the last coin. Just before the torture commences, Wong and company leave our hero and heroine alone long enough for Barton to find a convenient telephone and call his boss. "I'm somewhere back of old Lysee's herb shop. It's a matter of life and death. There's a secret panel on the back of the counter. You better come well heeled. These babies don't play with marbles." Nigh was no stranger to directing movies about Asians with white actors impersonated Orientals. He directed all four Boris Karloff mysteries in the "Mr. Wong" franchise: "Mr. Wong, Detective" (1938), "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" (1939), "The Fatal Hour" a.k.a "Mr. Wong at Headquarters" (1940), and "Doomed to Die" (1940). Later, Nigh directed Lugosi again in "Black Dragons" during 1942.

Of course, "Dracula" star Bela Lugosi was atrociously miscast as Mr. Wong with his obvious Hungarian accent. More than likely, Monogram cast Lugosi because Universal had cast Bela's biggest rival Boris Karloff in their 1932 epic "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Nevertheless, Bela delivers his lines with reasonable credibility and doesn't bump into the furniture. He looks pretty sinister as an Asian villain and he is up to his ears in intrigue and murder. "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" wallows in racial prejudice that was part and parcel of its time. Nevertheless, it still ranks as an entertaining B-movie.

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