Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Hatchet Man

Back in the 1930s it was common for Hollywood, when they were making movies about people of Asian descent, to use actors of European descent even though this often looked ludicrous. A fun example of this is in The Hatchet Man, which TCM will be showing early tomorrow morning at 5:30 AM.

The titular hatchet man is played by Edward G. Robinson of all people! He plays Wong, an assassin for one of the "Tongs" (that is clans or families) in the Chinese-American mafia of San Francisco. One day, he's given the task of assassinating Sun Yat Ming (J. Carrol Naish). This is problematic, because Sun was one of Wong's childhood friends. On top of that, Sun has a young daughter, Sun Toya. Wong is a professional though, and kills Sun. This isn't before Sun wills his business to Wong and tells Wong to take care of the daughter.

Fast forward many years. Wong is still being played by Robinson, and is now retired from the assassination game, having gone into Sun's business and having become quite successful financially at it. More creepily, he's fallen in love with Toya (now played by Loretta Young, who was about 20 at the time), and married her! Unfortunately for Wong, he has to go back to work killing people when another Tong war breaks out. While on an assignment, Toya meets and falls in love with Harry (despite the name, this is another Chinese-American character, played by Leslie Fenton). Wong lets her get a divorce because all he had really wanted to do was make Toya happy.

Fast forward some more years. Harry and Toya went to China where Toya wound up getting addicted to opium and likely (although if memory serves it's not explicitly mentioned as such in the film) sold into sex slavery to pay off her and Harry's debts. Wong learns about this and heads off to China to rescue Toya....

There's a lot of stuff to find fun in The Hatchet Man, even if it's so very hard to overlook the fact that you've got such bad miscasting. I suppose it wouldn't take too much script revision to make everybody be members of ethnic European mob organizations, and there are almost some echoes of Safe in Hell. Then again, bothe movies were directed by William Wellman. The acting is fairly good despite the miscasting, while the story has enough or the luridness and plot twists that were a staple of films in the pre-Code era. The Hatchet Man hasn't gotten a DVD release, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

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