As a gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, directed by William A Wellman and starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, this could have been a masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t. The big problem is that it is supposedly set in the San Francisco’s Chinatown, but almost all the characters are played by Caucasian actors – something which was done in many films in the 1930s, but was criticised even then. I found a contemporary review from The New York Times which pointed out the wild mis-casting of Robinson.
I’m only going to write a brief review of this film, but wanted to say that it does have its moments, as you’d expect from any film directed by Wellman – and Robinson in particular has some powerful scenes despite everything. I also liked the dark, shadowy cinematography by Sidney Hickox, who worked with Wellman on other pre-Codes like Safe In Hell, The Purchase Price and Frisco Jenny – which also has scenes in Chinatown. It’s just a shame that the print I saw isn’t very good and so there are some scenes where, amid the darkness, it is hard to work out exactly what is going on.
There is quite a lot of stereotyping of the Chinese characters, who constantly refer to everyone as “honourable” (the movie was adapted from a stage play called The Honorable Mister Wong) and to their ancestors – while the plot also involves opium dens. However, nobody puts on a fake Chinese accent, and the central characters are sympathetic, especially Robinson as “hatchet man” Wong Low Get, who is the noblest of professional assassins. At the start of the film he is ordered by the Tong gang to kill his best friend, Sun Yat Ming (J Carrol Naish). There is a heart-rending scene when he goes round to his friend’s house and they drink tea together, as Sun Yat reveals that he has had a premonition of his death and is leaving all he possesses – including his young daughter – to the care of the friend who, ironically, is about to kill him. One of the most striking images in the whole film comes when Wong finally strikes, as the hatchet is shown in shadowy silhouette – and then the camera cuts to the head of the little girl’s doll hanging loose.
The film then moves on to about 14 years later, when Sun Yat’s daughter, Toya (Young) is grown up. The will which left her to Wong’s care also expressed a hope that he would one day marry her, and the couple follow this through (it is never made clear whether she knows that her husband killed her father) – but Toya falls in love with her husband’s young bodyguard, Harry en Hai (Leslie Fenton). When Wong catches them together, instead of wielding his hatchet again, he gives his wife her freedom and lets her go away with her lover – something which brings on him the wrath of the Tong, who regard him as showing weakness. This is pre-Code material similar to the scenes in Wellman’s Other Men’s Women where an unfaithful wife is treated sympathetically – and this whole love triangle is one of the best sections of the film. Robinson pours so much emotion into the role at this point that he is electrifying to watch – you can tell how unhappy his character is just from the way he walks. Young doesn’t have as much scope and I don’t think she is as nearly good in this as she is in Wellman’s Midnight Mary or Heroes For Sale. Fenton’s character is little more than a cardboard villain.
There are some more plot twists which I won’t go into, taking the central three characters to China and ending with a shock which I’d hate to give away in case anybody reading this review does get round to watching this one! All in all, I think this is one of the weaker Wellman pre-Codes I’ve seen in this marathon, and probably mainly one for fans of either Wellman or Robinson.