Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 4 - The Fatal Hour (1939)

What is the purpose of Mr. Wong? Sure, the character is merely an opportunistic copy of other period Chinese detectives, like Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto, but with one notable difference – Mr. Wong’s characterization is not racist. (I can’t yet speak for Moto, but Chan is defined wholly by a “fortune cookie say” persona.) To avoid gross, broad stereotypes, instead Mr. Wong is defined by not seeming overtly Chinese – not too difficult, when actor Boris Karloff is himself the last person anyone would ever mistake for an Asian. Thus sometimes Monogram’s Mr. Wong series is surprisingly progressive, respecting non-white culture and doing other things that were mostly unheard of in 1939.

Too bad Mr. Wong, as the “Chinaman who isn’t a Chinaman,” doesn’t have a lot of other characteristics. The Mystery of Mr. Wong did well enough by being about stolen Chinese artifacts, where Wong’s normalcy could serve a point, but no longer. By Part Four, The Fatal Hour (as evidence of Wong’s boringness, his name no longer even appears in the titles), Wong’s a-Chineseness (or however you’d put it) is entirely dried out…Its only remaining use is a single incident where a racist thug calls Wong “that Chinese copper.” Karloff’s Wong responds with subtle indifference – or blandness, rather. Otherwise, there is no element in The Fatal Hour which informs Wong in any way. He admits so much himself, stating that this latest murder mystery has basically nothing to do with him.

So Mr. Wong fades into the background of his own series. He remains, not as a human personality, but entirely as an anthropomorphized plot device. These murder mysteries ain’t gonna solve themselves, and the cops are pretty worthless, so we need Wong to selflessly steer everyone in the proper direction. Then the climax comes along, and Wong can reveal the murderer, exposit a little in retrospect, the end. These movies wouldn’t end without him, but they wouldn’t even function were he the focus.

Instead, the true star of the Mr. Wong films, more and more, is his San Francisco PD counterpart, Bill Street (Grant Withers). Street is free to be as ineffective as he wishes, without any complaints about misrepresentation – except from police officers. He is the most engaging character of the series, which isn’t actually saying much. Street’s disposition can vary wildly from film to film, going from a hot-headed, tactless rabble-rouser to a well-meaning detective who’s simply in over his head. With the plots increasingly perfunctory, and Wong MIA more and more, Street reverts to his jerkass ways – this isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Actually, promoting Street up to unofficial “lead” status (only with Wong’s name forever ahead of his in lights, the poor douchebag) is sort of like creating an entire movie out of Paul Gleason’s Die Hard character (you know, the stupidest of the cops, who was still somehow in charge…until the Johnsons showed up). It’s kind of telling that The Fatal Hour coasts on that sort of characterization, with Boris Karloff that ineffectual.

Ostensibly aiding Street – not necessarily in the investigations, but in being remotely entertaining – is his female reporter counterpart, “Bobbie” Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). In fact, since her introduction in the previous Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Ms. Logan has been the best thing about the series. Basically, she’s Lois Lane, only with a habit of saving others. Sadly, The Fatal Hour doesn’t really know what do to with her – which should be to place her and Street into something like a cheap-ass version of His Girl Friday meets The Thin Man. This doesn’t happen in The Fatal Hour, which relegates Bobbie almost as badly as it does Wong – I suppose respecting women and the Chinese through competent characterizations is one thing, though it leaves a B-movie studio of the era rather ill-prepared to do anything with them. Sigh.

Actually, it seems the majority of The Fatal Hour’s efforts are wasted on new characters, the suspects of today’s murder mystery – which is such a desultory affair, the first line of dialogue (that is, the first scene as well) simply announces by fiat that some guy Grady is dead, yadda yadda. It’s more efficient even than Mr. Wong in Chinatown’s introductory princess murder (!), but in a way which removes all dramatic impetus.

The Fatal Hour is dramatically anemic, because director William Nigh no longer has any idea (or inspiration) for how to use his three recurring characters. Instead, as said, it’s all so much attention lavished upon the lesser one-off supporting characters. Now…the plot of The Fatal Hour is, assuredly, nothing too complex – something to do with murder, naturally, on top of personal politics, dance clubs, and radio (that astonishing new space age invention of the future!) – I’d’ve been able to follow this story most easily, had I been willing to do so. The fact is that murder mysteries are often the least important detail of murder mystery movies (again, look to The Thin Man for the highly entertaining reason why). Thus, between overexposure to Wongs (such as it is) in a short time (plus over 40 Chans previously under my belt), I am somewhat apathetic to the prosaic concerns of a mystery film. This is an admission that most film reviewers, even fly-by-night blogger types, should rarely admit to: Actively not paying attention to a movie.

Really, there’s not much to say about The Fatal Hour which I haven’t gone over in former Wongs – at this rate, my final post on this series will be in the negative word count. Maybe it’ll just be pictures. For now, though, there’s at least one final bit of scripted strangeness which I cannot help but comment upon…

Again, the lone detail by which Wong solves the case is a mightily prominent hangnail. This time, it concerns radio technology of 1939. Specifically, Wong takes minutes (a waste, given his reduced screen time) to learn from a salesman all about Victrola’s latest toaster-sized remote controls. It’s the wonder of the ages, now you can change between the three old-timey pre-rock ‘n’ roll radio stations from a distance, like a spaceman or a wizard! I understand the tech was new in ’39, and required exposition to an incredulous mass of filmgoers, but it dates The Fatal Hour something fierce! (Oh, like The Fatal Hour was ever not going to be dated.) I’d wager many a “CSI,” so enamored of the latest nanotech gobbledygook or whatnot, will share this same fate.

What’s interesting is just how radio remotes figure into cracking the case. You see, it concerns the timing of a murder, which coincides roughly with the radio being turned on. Now, the villain turned on this radio from two–hundred feet out (thus somehow expanding the murder window by several hours, which I do not understand), but why?! Well, because in 1939, when a radio turns on, anywhere, if you hear it, you run to it, slobbering obediently like one of Pavlov’s dogs, eager for the latest pap from the shimmering voice box. Again, yeah, new technology and all, it’s old hat now, though I suppose people at E3 or wherever act similarly idiotic at its latest quivering gewgaws. Still, if I heard my neighbor’s radio turn on really loud, my first instinct wouldn’t be to rush over so as to stand docily before the machine in awe. I would demand he turn the damn volume down already – sorry, I’m working through some personal issues here.

Um…and that’s The Fatal Hour, a movie so disposable and boring, my writing quality has devolved to 2010 levels. Huzzah!

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