Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT (1938)

In 1937, the conflict between China and Japan intensifies when Japan bombs Peking (or Peiping as it was called back then), and a shipload of partying passengers on the way to Shanghai are advised to transfer to another ship and go back to San Francisco because their safety cannot be guaranteed. Del Forbes (George Sanders), playboy and adventurer, stays as he's going to be training Chinese pilots, but he advises the young and innocent Joyce Parker (June Lang) to leave—she first introduces herself as a journalist but admits that she's on board because she won a newspaper contest, and she hopes to write a series of articles about her trip. Before he leaves the ship, Forbes is called to the room of ailing notorious gun-runner Maurice Zabello, who asks Forbes to impersonate him in Shanghai to close a million dollar deal for a shipload of guns to be delivered to a Joseph Lang. When Forbes checks in as Zabello at a hotel in the International Settlement—a district shared and controlled by foreign governments—he runs into Joyce, who decided to stay though she has a hard time getting a room, and his old friend Wally Burton (Dick Baldwin), a cocky but charming newsreel reporter, who after an initial rough patch, bonds with Joyce. Forbes is also shot at by the exotic singer Lenore (Delores del Rio), who has a grudge against Zabello. After they get things straightened out, Forbes goes to collect the money from Lang (and his unsavory associate Murdock), but we see that a Mr. Silvers is keeping a close eye on the transaction, apparently planning to horn in at some point. Just as Forbes is about to deliver the money, he finds Zabello has died, and now he's stuck with a false identity, a lot of money, and no way to deliver the guns to Lang. He'll soon need all the help he can get from Joyce and Wally, but can he really trust Lenore? What about that sinisterly snoopy Silvers? And, worst of all, Japanese bombers are heading to Shanghai.

That's a lot of plot to cram into a 75 minute B-movie (albeit it high-B) and, surprisingly, there are still a few dead spots in the proceedings, but overall this is mild fun. The biggest problem is Sanders, who looks very young and dapper, but as I've noted before, is not an action hero, and when fisticuffs occur, it's plain that a double has stepped in for him. Still, he's fine in the first half. I'm not a big fan of Del Rio, but she's serviceable here. Baldwin (pictured above left with Del Rio) is fun in the buddy role—at times, he seems like Robert Cummings with an extra dose of testosterone—and Lang (pictured at right with George Sanders) does well as the na├»ve but plucky gal pal. She went on to a so-so career in B-films, though Baldwin, who seemed more promising, only made a handful of movies before going into real estate. The support is a notch above the usual: Leon Ames and John Carradine are good, Harold Huber is straightforward as Lang. The movie stops dead for two mediocre songs, one right at the beginning which is about a supposed dance craze called The Shrug. Key Luke has a crucial but thankless role as a doctor near the end of the film. The slow pace at the beginning is needed to get all the plotlines unspooled, and it does pick up in the home stretch. [YouTube]

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