Sunday, July 19, 2009

Black Dragons (Banner/Monogram, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running a couple of 1940’s “B” movies. One was a film I had on the computer: Black Dragons, a 1942 Bela Lugosi vehicle for Monogram that’s one of those peculiar movies (like The Da Vinci Code — I defy anyone who hasn’t read Dan Brown’s source novel to make sense of The Da Vinci Code on film) that’s a lot more fun — because it’s a lot more comprehensible — if you go into it actually knowing the plot premise in advance. Like the MGM “A” Keeper of the Flame, released the following year, Black Dragons is supposed to be a suspense thriller with a surprise “twist” at the end, but most of the action is completely mystifying without advance awareness of what all of this is really about.

Made right after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by producers (Sam Katzman, Jack Dietz and Barney A. Sarecky) who were so determined to keep their story topical that they kept screenwriter Harvey Gates busy at his typewriter for rewrite after rewrite during the shoot (which must have driven Lugosi, who never learned much English and had to memorize his lines phonetically, utterly nuts) and came up with a confusing mess of a plot, Black Dragons opens in Washington, D.C. at an upper-class party where, as Tom Weaver put it in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, “business leaders, bankers and lawyers schmooze about the War; classified information is being bandied about like back-fence gossip.” The party is being hosted by Dr. Bill Saunders (George Pembroke), and after the guests leave Saunders and five other people, New York banker Amos Hanlin (Robert Fraser), Pittsburgh steel magnate Ryder (Edward Pell, Sr.), businessmen Phillip Wallace (Robert Fiske) and John Van Dyke (Irving Mitchell) and labor leader Kerney (Max Hoffman, Jr.) start discussing their real aims and boasting of how they’ve been able to sabotage the war effort by holding up financing and parts production, fomenting strikes and the like. In between these sequences there’s a series of stock clips edited into a montage of the saboteurs at work sinking ships, blowing up bridges and burning oil wells, so we know the plot is working.

Then a sinister Frenchman who calls himself “Monsieur Colomb” (Bela Lugosi) shows up at the Saunders house and hypnotizes him in the best Lugosi manner, keeping Saunders locked in his bedroom and establishing himself as Saunders’ house guest — and the other members of Saunders’ dinner party start turning up dead, some of them in hotel rooms but most of them at the now-closed Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., where Colomb (well, it’s a Bela Lugosi movie, so there’s not a lot of suspense about who the killer is!) dumps them after he kills them at the Saunders home or wherever else he’s able to lure them. In a flashback sequence, stylishly directed by (or at least credited, like the rest of the film, to) William Nigh with far more interesting lighting and camera angles than the rest of the movie, it’s revealed that “Colomb” was really German plastic surgeon Dr. Melcher, who in an interesting case of Axis cooperation was sent to Japan to take six members of the sinister Black Dragon Society (which really existed; they operated from the 1890’s to the end of World War II and were a bunch of Right-wingers who systematically sabotaged any attempts by the Japanese government to pursue a peace policy, including staging the infamous military coup attempt of 1936 as well as murdering at least two prime ministers before that) and remodel their faces to look like six prominent American business and labor leaders whom the Japanese had kidnapped and killed.

After the operations are complete, the head of the Black Dragon Society (I. Stanford Jolley) double-crosses Melcher and imprisons him, but Melcher still has his surgical instruments with him and does a little D.I.Y. surgery on himself so that he resembles his about-to-be-released cellmate (also played by Lugosi, in his second and last dual role; his first was in the 1935 indie Murder by Television), and thereby escapes — and in the final scene it turns out that Lugosi has given Saunders a serum that has turned him into a monster, and as Lugosi’s character dies Saunders whines, “And now I must go on living!” (The gimmick was probably inspired by Lugosi’s similar manipulation of Boris Karloff in the 1935 The Raven by “uglifying” his face and then offering to make it good-looking if Karloff’s character would just follow orders.) After watching The Invisible Ghost it’s hard not to imagine what Joseph H. Lewis could have done with the script of Black Dragons (and, indeed, it’s entirely possible Lewis did direct the flashback sequence, which shows a richness and depth of visual imagination usually far beyond William Nigh), instead of the flat, dull, boring presentation we actually get even of some pretty far-out material: like many of the other Lugosi Monograms he’s shown doing a lot of Dracula-esque things even in the context of a story that, as far-fetched as it might be, doesn’t contain any supernatural elements.

Charles actually rather liked Black Dragons, mainly for its combination of whodunit, Old Dark House-style thriller and international intrigue — and it’s also of interest in that one of the good guys is FBI agent Dick Martin, played by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore (who seems oddly shorter and gawkier without mask, silver bullets or horse), and the other is Joan Barclay, reunited with Lugosi after the 1936 serial Shadow of Chinatown and playing Saunders’ long-lost niece — only it turns out that she’s another government agent merely posing as Saunders’ long-lost niece (with the approval of the original, whom we never see).