Sunday, February 03, 2008


I usually have affection and tolerance for Poverty Row movies like this crime "thriller" from Monogram, but even I could barely stick with this one for its entire 63 minutes. When I was trying to explain this "genre" of film to my partner Don, who got stuck watching this dog with me, he asked, "So Poverty Row means racist and unfunny?" In this case, yes. The plot has some promise: the title character (Bela Lugosi), who runs a spice shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, has resorted to murder to collect 11 of the 12 fabled coins of Confucius, which will supposedly give the owner great power. The police, stymied by the string of killings, tell the press that there's a Tong war going on, but cocky reporter Wallace Ford thinks differently. He takes a note in Chinese that he found at the last murder scene to a professor of Orientology (yes, that's exactly what it says on his door) to get it translated, but the professor winds up dead--as a cop says, "He sure is speaking a dead language now!" (That line is the high point of the movie.) It turns out that the last victim managed to hide the twelfth coin before he died, and the rest of the movie is a race, albeit rather sluggishly paced, between Ford (and his wisecracking girl Arline Judge) and Lugosi to get the coin. The film has the usual flaws of ultra-low budget films of the era--cheap, overlit sets; hack writing; no background music; too much talk and not enough action--but it has none of the potential charms of such films, such as atmosphere or camp appeal. Don also noted that the film seemed like a serial without cliffhangers, and there is something to his comment; the first 11 murders all mostly occur off-screen in the first five minutes, but this might have all worked better as a serial in which Wong gets one coin per chapter. Surprisingly, the Hungarian Lugosi, whose accent winds up kind of mumbly-foreign, is not terrible as the Chinese Wong, who is a very poor man's Fu Manchu. Ford, who I usually like, sleepwalks through the feisty reporter role, and Judge is only marginally better. There are lots and lots of nasty anti-Chinese cracks made by Ford and the police, chiefly by Robert Emmett O'Connor as a stereotypical Irish cop, and only one scene (involving two giggly girls) in which the Chinese get back at the Anglos. The Roan Group "archival" disc is in junky shape, on a par with the Alpha bargain-basement discs--not that I think this film really deserves to have a lot of restoration effort put into it. Recommended only for die-hard Lugosi fans. [DVD]

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