The Hatchet Man (1932)

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.

Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young

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.

27 thoughts on “The Hatchet Man (1932)

  1. This is a fascinating review of a film, that I am sorry to say I have not seen, though I will keep an eye out for it. The Chinese stereotyping does remind me of 1932, THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, which of course is still a great film. I understand what you are saying here about the film being one of the weaker entries of this period, but what you say here is still worth something:

    “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.”


    • Thanks very much, Sam – this film isn’t up there with ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’, which I was lucky enough to see fairly recently, but there are some good sections where Robinson gets a chance to show his power as an actor. Interesting that both these movies with their Chinese stereotyping were in 1932.


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  3. I see I’m the first one today :) How about this speculation: although white or European-American, since playing in Ramona (where she’s native American), Loretta Young was somehow connected to the vulnerable and powerless and especially Asian and Asian-American people. I’ve seen her in short TV movies where she is luminous victim.

    Analogously, Robinson is the outcast, bitter, cynical, but still standing for as you put it the electrifyingly unhappy. I find him riveting.

    So perhaps for viewers at the time, they were substitutes for what if put on screen would not have been distributed in many parts of the US, or if so, not drawn in an audience.

    I remember watching OxBow Incident where the hero of the tale, an African-American (black man, Negro) is played by a white man with a darkened face. It’s grating but the performance is splendid; so too Anthony Quinn as the brilliant and murdered Mexican is stunning. We really hate the white lynchers.



    • Thanks very much for commenting, Ellen. That is an interesting point about Loretta Young playing victims – I haven’t yet seen ‘Ramona’ but have seen several of her 1930s films where her characters are vulnerable and powerless, as you say, including Wellman’s ‘Midnight Mary’ and Frank Borzage’s ‘Man’s Castle’ which I’ve just been re-watching and hope to write about here soon.

      I also agree that Robinson is riveting to watch – I really need to watch more of his movies. I haven’t yet seen ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ as I’ve been concentrating on earlier Wellman films, but it is one I definitely intend to see. So many great movies I need to catch up on.:)


  4. Judy, I haven’t seen this but plan to correct that very soon. I had no idea of the plot line until I read your review, and now I’m moving this one up on my “to watch” list.

    I’m a big fan of EG Robinson, and I know exactly what you meant when you said that even his walk indicated how miserable his character was. Not too long ago I was able to watch THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING; in it Robinson did a masterful job of playing two completely opposite men. It was a revelation to see the different facial movements and postures he used to portray each character. It’s still amazing to see what subtleties he’d use to color whatever character he was playing.

    HATCHET may be a flawed film, but I’m looking forward to watching it all the same.

    Nice review, Judy.


    • I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this one when you have seen it, CagneyFan. If you can work out what is going on in a scene where Robinson seems to be sitting on a beach covered with crabs, let me know – it was so dark in the copy I saw that I couldn’t make it out! As you’re a fan of his I’m sure you will appreciate his performance in this – I’ll need to see ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ after reading your description. Thank you very much for the encouragement.


  5. Judy,

    Ellen has a good point about white actors portraying Orientals being more acceptable back in those days. While it seems ludicrous today, it was fairly common back then. We also had Peter Lorre playing Mr. Moto, an Oriental dectective in a series of films as well as Boris Karloff in his own series of Mr Wong films and of course the Charlie Chan films with both Warner Orland and Sidney Tolar. The films were products of their times and I think they just need to be looked at in that perspective.


    • John, I know you are right that it happened a lot then. For some reason the problem with the casting struck me more in this one than in other films I’ve seen with white actors playing Chinese characters, such as ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’, which Sam mentioned – maybe because I don’t think ‘The Hatchet Man’ is that good a film and so I wasn’t carried along by it in the same way. Anyway I do take your point that the films need to be looked at in the perspective of the time, and thanks for commenting.


  6. I really liked this movie. I’ve seen so many old movies where caucasians play ethnic characters that this didn’t really bother me too much except that EGR’s face is so distinctive he looks like an eastern european jewish man playing a chinese character. But his acting is SO good. He’s just brilliant. I never tire of watching him in anything and highly recommend this film as an example of how compelling and versatile Robinson is. Speaking of “Bitter Tea” – that’s another fascinating film. I always thought EGR would have been great as the General (since a caucasian actor was required for the role in those days.)


    • Thanks very much for commenting, Muriel – I must agree that Robinson is a brilliant actor and compelling to watch. I’m hoping to see more of his films in the next few months.


  7. Judy, Thank you for your comments on “The Hatchet Man.” I have a copy of this film. I agree it’s not that great, BUT I must say, as insignificant as it may sound to others here, there is one scene I love to watch over and over. In fact, when I view this movie, I fast forward to this scene. Loretta Young is dancing in a dance hall with a young man to a great orchestra playing “It’s Love.” While dancing, she whispers into his ear “oh boy, that’s keen” or words to that effect. I have a recording of this number “It’s Love” by the famous orchestra of the early 30s Isham Jones. FYI, they also used this song as background music for another Loretta Young film with James Cagney, “Taxi.” It was the same song only played tenderly and slow as background only. Tommy


    • Thanks, Tommy – I’m a big Cagney fan and also getting increasingly interested in Loretta Young’s work, so I’m very fond of ‘Taxi!’, and interested to hear that the same song features in both films – and also that you have a recording of it played by an orchestra. It quite often seems as if the same music turns up in more than one film of this period.


  8. I watched a relatively poor copy of this film too Judy. When you mentioned in a previous post..

    “If you can work out what is going on in a scene where Robinson seems to be sitting on a beach covered with crabs, let me know – it was so dark in the copy I saw that I couldn’t make it out!”

    I couldn’t resist tracking it down because I didn’t remember any crabs! I believe you are referring to the scene where he receives the letter from Loretta Young’s character, Toya. They are working in a field. It appears to me it may be strawberry plants. The leaves wave in the wind, looking a bit like crabs scurrying about.

    I must say, even with the yellow-face characters, I really enjoyed this film! The atmosphere is appropriately dark and Robinson does a great job of Westernizing his character in the later years. He really stands out like a sore thumb in his Tong, and is obviously meant to be so. As you said, Young’s character doesn’t get as much scope, but I like the short sequence where she is at home listening to music and starts dancing by herself. It shows the youthful yearning that causes her to stray.

    Much of the reason behind the lead characters using yellow-face is because of the difficulty in creating romantic scenes if any of them actually had been Asian. If for example, Anna May Wong were cast as Toya, instead of Young, she would not have been allowed to kiss either Robinson’s character or Fenton’s character. Miscegenation would not fly with 30s audiences, even in a pre-code film with actors portraying asians. How times have changed.


    • Gary, I must apologise for not having answered this comment. I thought I had done so! Very belated thanks from me. I’m very interested to hear that they are probably strawberry plants rather than crabs and that it is a field rather than a beach – shows the quality of the print I watched! Also interesting to hear the further thoughts on the casting of white actors in the Asian roles and why there was a reluctance to cast a mix. Thanks again.


    • Thanks for the information, Doug, that is interesting to know. It would be good to know more about the writers involved with many 1930s films, who too often tend to be overlooked.


  9. Now this is a picture I barely knew about, and I didn’t realize that Robinson and Young were done up in yellowface for it. Sounds intriguing, I’ll have to seek this one out. I’m a great admirer of Anna May Wong, by the way, and I imagine that she would’ve been perfect for this.


    • Thank you, Judy. I REALLY appreciate you directing me to the TCM link. I use IMDB and TCM all the time but I guess I was so annoyed that I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to go seek them out. What a terrific (and believable for the times) story. It is unfortuante that Asian actors could not have played these parts. It was distracting for me but probably did work at the time. This film delivered for me with the setting in Chinatown. Robinson was excellent in this partular role. Though an entirely different premise, his role in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” places him in a position to evke similar emotions. That movie ranks very high in my estimation of Edward G Robinson performances. Thanks again………


  10. Thanks. i too missed the last (couple of seconds, it seems like) . i’ll watch anything w. EGR, only seen a few so far, recommend Brother Orchid . Long live Vivien Leigh, immortal queen.


  11. I watched this film when i was a very young man, and was very entertained i am now 81 and would like to see it again. It’s too bad it cannot be shown i haved scoured the net, and for some reason or another they only show a short clip, I know there are many movies of the early yr. that are not up to our movie standards of today , and that may be a better in some cases (a matter of choise) But I still like to watch some of the old stuff.


    • Hi William, many thanks for your comment. This film is now available on DVD-R as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume 7 – looks as if the DVD isn’t available on its own, but it might be possible to get a single DVD via eBay if you only want the one film. The set is a lot cheaper at Amazon than from TCM. Hope this helps and thanks again.


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