Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hong Kong Confidential (Vogue Pictures/United Artists, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of late-1950’s “B”’s I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies during an all-day salute to actress Allison Hayes. She’s basically remembered as a figure of ridicule for her starring role in the sci-fi ultra-cheapie Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (which they showed as one of the films), a film actually better than its reputation but one in which Hayes is out-acted by Yvette Vickers (playing her husband’s illicit girlfriend — Hayes’ character is enlarged to the titular size by a space alien who has the hots for her and wants her the same size as him, but she escapes and gets her own comeuppance by catching her hubby and Vickers in a bar and literally bringing the house down on both of them), but the movies we watched — both directed by Edward L. Cahn (who’d begun his career making shorts and “B”’s for MGM in the 1930’s) for a production company headed by former screenwriter Robert E. Kent (the man who was renowned for having such a command of movie clichés he was able to recount a baseball game he’d been to the night before and keep working on his script at the same time) which had a releasing deal through United Artists. The Web site lists it as “Robert E. Kent Productions” but it had other names, including “Vogue Pictures” and “Premium Pictures.” (Kent may have started a “collapsible” company for each new film, since the tax laws at the time made it advantageous to collect the income from a film as capital gains and then, when its theatrical and possibly TV runs were finished, close down the company that had officially made it and distribute the profits to the various investors and participants.) The first was Hong Kong Confidential, an interesting title because Charles and I had seen several films with a city name followed by the word “Confidential” in the title, but this was the first I could recall in which the city was outside the United States. (The “Confidential” film series was inspired by a run of best-selling books by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer that purported to expose the dirty political, financial, criminal and social secrets of one major American metropolis after another.)

Hong Kong Confidential was a basic Cold War espionage thriller starring Gene Barry — looking considerably older and more heavy-set in 1958 than he’d looked just a few years earlier saving the entire world from nuclear annihilation in The Atomic City and from Martian attack in his best-known film, the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. Barry plays American government operative (this was during a period in which real American intelligence agencies like the FBI and the CIA dared not speak their names on screen) Casey Reed, whose cover identity is as a mediocre lounge singer in places like “Frisco Joe’s” in Hong Kong. His partner in the act is Fay Wells (Beverly Tyler), who’s also his girlfriend but who’s understandably restive at the long separations between them during which he’s tearing off to do heaven knows what, leaving her to hold forth at the club as a single. The plot of Hong Kong Confidential involves a fictional Middle Eastern country called Thamen, which is being courted by both the United States and the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) as a site for a missile base. To ensure that they get the base and we don’t, those dirty Russkies have kidnapped the sheik of Thamen’s son and are holding him somewhere in the world — if the sheik rejects his already negotiated treaty with the U.S. and signs with the Soviets instead, the boy will be released (at least that’s what the baddies have told the sheik — actually they intend to murder both the son and Casey Reed, to make it look like it was the Americans in general and Reed in particular who snatched the boy) — and the film runs for about 15 of its 67 total minutes before we finally find out how Hong Kong is going to figure in the action: that’s where Casey Reed is and that’s where the baddies have taken the boy, though if screenwriter Orville H. Hampton actually gave any clue as to how the CIA (or the nameless agency Casey works for) knew he would be there, I don’t recall it in the actual movie. Anyway, Reed soon realizes that the key to the boy’s whereabouts is a sexy female smuggler, Elena Martine (Allison Hayes), who’s in league with a turncoat British agent named Owen Howard (Noel Drayton, who out-acts everyone else in the film).

To get in their good graces, Reed approaches them with a scheme to smuggle gold out of Macao (the other main setting of this film’s action) to Hong Kong by disguising it as worthless souvenir junk jewelry (the smugglers are suspicious that Reed could have thought of that on his own, but they needn’t be; it’s pretty obvious he, or rather screenwriter Hampton, had got this idea from seeing The Lavender Hill Mob, in which the crooks plan to smuggle gold bullion they’ve stolen by melting it down, remolding it into toy replicas of the Eiffel Tower, and painting it black to make it look like junk souvenirs. When Reed illustrates his point by drizzling acid on one of the supposedly worthless knickknacks to expose the gold beneath, I couldn’t help but joke, “It’s The Maltese Falcon in reverse!” Eventually — after quite a few action highlights shot in convincing neo-noir style by Cahn and cinematographer Kenneth Peach — Reed locates the Arab boy, his station chief gives Reed the O.K. at long last to tell his girlfriend what he really does for a living, and all ends well. The film features some quirky casting, including Philip Ahn as one of the locals and Walter Woolf King as the CIA (or whatever) chief back in Washington, D.C. — so everyone in the cast of Hong Kong Confidential is one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers! It also has a stentorian third-person narrator who really gets in the way, laboriously explaining things when we can see for ourselves what’s going on — a wretched convention of a lot of films of the time that were going for pseudo-“documentary” reality. Still, it wasn’t a bad movie if you could take the heavy-duty Cold War politics, hammered home by that obnoxious narrator — and the use of a lounge singer as Reed’s cover identity made me think this film offers a hint of what North by Northwest might have looked like if Alfred Hitchcock had followed his original casting plan and put Frank Sinatra into the male lead, essentially playing himself as an entertainer (instead of an advertising man) thrust into a real-life spy plot (an idea he abandoned after he realized that Sinatra was so well known he couldn’t possibly be mistaken for someone else!).