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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

BLACK DRAGONS (1942)

After the Japanese infamously burst into World War Two with their Pearl Harbour attack on December 7th 1941, President Roosevelt declared it: “A date which will live in infamy”.  Monogram’s patriotic response was a dreadful Japano-bashing horror-crime thriller whose release could also fit that description. Black Dragons was rushed, and I do mean rushed, into production the following month – under the title The Yellow Menace. Don’t let the swapping of titles fool you; there’s plenty of undisguised tastelessness right this way…

The assigned director was William Nigh whose background of helming several of the East Side Kids crime capers along with Charlie Chan sequels made him arguably the logical choice to collide criminal gangs and Oriental stereotypes into a two-for-one one bad movie. Over his career, he made many films for the Poverty Row studios of PRC and Monogram (including 1943’s The Ape) with occasionally more upmarket forays such as Universal’s The Strange Case of Dr RX which we will come to later in 1942.

Toplining Black Dragons was Bela Lugosi in the third of his much-loved ‘Monogram Nine’ crashed vehicles under Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions. Katzman was a producer who never allowed himself to be distracted by petty concerns like quality dialogue, plotting or credibility in pursuit of an opportunistic B-movie buck or two. To assist this continuing principle, we are treated to a script by Robert Kehoe and Harvey Gates that manages to both offend and bore in equal measure.

The best way to summarise the alleged plot (second best if you count shaking a bag of Scrabble tiles and then scattering them all over your writing desk) is that Lugosi plays the murky Monsieur Colomb who furtively visits Dr Saunders, part of a shady Fifth Columnist espionage ring, and gradually revenges himself upon them all for an initially unspecified crime, which is then hilariously revealed at the end. The exposition along the way is marvellously ham-fisted, complemented by a cast whose performances mostly have that peculiarly relaxed dreariness of ‘70s porn, only with a lot more wood on display.

Dr Saunders (George Pembroke) spends most of the film as a secluded off-stage voice once Lugosi fixes him with his hypnotic glare. At least the Hungarian falling star has a part that fits his sadly-overused trading persona, that of the sombre Svengali of vengeful influence and heavily intimated one-liners. Saunders’ niece Alice, (Joan Barclay), one of the worst bad-acting exhibits, arrives and complicates matters for Colomb by trying to see her evasive father. She suspects foul play and soon strikes low-frequency sparks with investigative G-Man Dick Martin played by Clayton Moore, later famous as the Lone Ranger. He rides in to catch more than her eye in a sequence that is the first glimmer of some ugly misogynism sewn into the movie. He grabs her arm harshly to see her out after assuring her of his manly protection. She acts as though turned on by this in a debatable some-like-it-rough manner, which is then developed with a jaw-droppingly tasteless exchange when he is frustrated by her unwillingness to leave for safety:

“Alice, will you marry me?”
“Why?”
“So I can beat you up. It’s the only way to get you out of here”.

Alice’s taste for bad boys is conceived by the writers as practically suicidal. In between Dick’s rough grabbing and hilarious domestic violence remark, she also takes a shine to the evil-radiating Lugosi who is here given a more subtle if clumsily-written shade to his sexism: “When a young woman’s nerves commence to give way, she seeks refuge in a strong man’s arms”. At least he has the decency to warn her he is dangerous.

While the government agents circle the ensuing homicides like a myopic vulture, another traitor appears, Wallace (Edward Peil Sr), snooping for something seedy. Hearing from Stevens the butler that Saunders is unavailable, he gives a marvellous Homer Simpson “D’oh!” before Columb steams in and strangles him into unreachability of his own.

“It’s murder”, barks Kenneth Harlan’s FBI Chief Colton, observing two more corpses dagger-in-hand on the Japanese Embassy steps. This now totals four. His stupendous powers of deduction should maybe spend a moment on the beat cop that found them, who by cost-effective coincidence is the same one to find the last body here. It’s a good thing the authorities are dunderheads because the espionagers are using a marvellously incredible method of sending each other secret messages – advertising cards offering ‘PLASTIC SURGERY. RESULTS GUARANTEED’ – bearing no contact details whatsoever. That’ll fool anyone of minimal intelligence.

Systematically, Columb kills off the traitorous cartel including spell-binding both Robert Fiske and Irving Mitchell’s spies Ryder and Van Dyke into shooting each other. “You are both very accommodating, Mr Rrryder” gloats Lugosi with relish. The actors playing the criminal ring are basically interchangeable black-hats, yet Mitchell distinguishes himself with a startlingly unmanly squeal when stumbling upon the dead Wallace.

On the subject of considered unmanliness, Hanlin (Robert Frazer), the last of the spy league refuses Dick’s protection with some offensive dialogue to rival his: “A busy man has very little time to indulge in feminine emotions”. Dick’s pre-amble appeal to him as a ‘good American’ is an insightful hint of the language perversion used to support the growing anti-Communist bullying of the nation’s own real nest of vipers during the 1940s.

Chief Colton manages to shoehorn in another of the writers’ charming chauvinisms as we build toward the big reveal when we discover that Alice is actually a government agent, or as he calls her “one of my best girl operatives”.

The main revelations though are saved for the expository flashback, a real bonus for bad film fanatics. We are whisked away to the exotic Japanese city of Stock Footage whose location is also helpfully conveyed by a gong sounding as we enter the interior of the plot-inciting Japanese warlord’s lair. Western actor and actor of westerns I. Stanford Jollee plays the Asian supervillain (known as ‘The Dragon’) with the kind of halting am-dram delivery through his beard that suggests his character is either not fully conversant with English or determined to lengthen his screen time with fiendishly excruciating pauses. He represents “the Order of Black Dragons…ready to serve…empire…into…death.”

The Land of the Rising Sun has recruited Lugosi, in reality Nazi plastic surgeon and fellow beard exponent Dr Melcher, to transform six Japanese men - via “wholesale surgery”- at the table into the American-looking spy ring who will infiltrate America. Just to prove there is no honour among stereotyped thieves, the double-crossing bastards then incarcerate Lugosi (to preserve their secret plan) in a cell with a clean-shaven doppelganger of himself, thus providing the doctor with the murder motive – and someone to impersonate before escape.

This just leaves the present-day Dr Saunders to unmask himself from under a black satin hood as the final victim of Melcher’s handiwork, a snivelling, dark porridge-visaged coward.
‘JAP SPY RING SMASHED!’ blares a newspaper headline, ending the film with an unsubtle shot of the American flag to remind us that the country would soon be in the hands of men who would hide behind it to justify their own corrupting power plays.

The publicity department also trumpeted some desperate ploys in support of the movie. Poverty Row Horrors! author Tom Weaver quotes their drafting-in of fiction-writer Joseph Gollomb purporting to be a genuine historian: “For over fifty years the Black Dragon society has held Japan in a grip of such terror that not even the so-called ‘Son of Heaven’, the Emperor, is immune to it”. Well, there’s certainly no recorded inoculation against scornful laughter, despite the society being grounded in sober truth. Weaver goes on to describe how the Black Dragons, correctly known as the Kokoryukai/Amur River association had triggered the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and amongst their self-protective assassination plots had staged a 3,000-strong armed insurrection in Tokyo on February 26th  1936. 

Now there’s an idea for a movie…

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