These was a bit of a vogue in Hollywood in the early 1930s for murder mysteries in a Chinatown setting. These provided the perfect subject matter for the pre-code era, combining exoticism with usually a fair helping of sleaze (white slavery being another favourite pre-code subject). The Mysterious Mr Wong is slightly different - it’s like a Chinatown murder mystery with a dash of Fu Manchu.
The eponymous Mr Wong (played with dash by Bela Lugosi) is a tong gang leader who wants a great deal more power than simple crime can offer. He has heard the legend that the great Chinese sage Confucious distributed twelve gold coins to his followers and that anyone who can collect all twelve coins will thereby gain unlimited occult powers.
Mr Wong has eleven of the coins and is hot on the trail of the twelfth coin. His quest has left behind it a trail of corpses - Mr Wong’s methods of coin collecting do not involve sitting in auction rooms.
The series of murders all this has entailed have come to the attention of wise-cracking reporter Jay Barton (Wallace Ford). He doesn’t know what he’s on to but he knows he’s on to something big. He knows this is more than just a tong war.
In between his reporting duties he’s romancing feisty (and also wise-cracking) switchboard operator Peg (Arline Judge), who will find herself drawn into Mr Wong’s web.
This is a production by Poverty Row studio Monogram so don’t expect high production values. The movie does however have many of the virtues of the classic Hollywood B-movie - it’s fast-moving, it’s reasonably action-packed and it has some good hardboiled dialogue. Plus it has Bela Lugosi in a role that allows him to have a lot of fun, and it’s a role he makes the most of.
It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination and Wallace Ford is an acquired taste. Personally I quite enjoy fast-talking wise-cracking movie reporters and Wallace Ford does this sort of thing pretty well. Arline Judge is excellent and the banter between the two of them is entertaining.
The screenplay doesn’t really capitalise on the potential of the coins idea. We’re not told exactly what powers the coins will confer. While Lugosi is very good the script lets him down a little - he needed to be given more scope for making Mr Wong a full-scale Fu Manchu-type diabolical criminal mastermind. The character of the Chinese secret service agent needed to be developed a bit more as well.
The exotic Chinatown setting and Bela Lugosi make this movie worth seeing, as long as you set your expectations fairly low. Amusing and moderately enjoyable.
It’s in the public domain but the transfer on the DVD I saw (from Mill Creek) was actually reasonably OK.