Black Dragons, released in 1942, was the third of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram pictures produced by Sam Katzman and it’s a slightly unusual spy thriller with (of course) some sinister overtones. And it gives Lugosi the chance to play dual roles.
The story deals with a ring of Japanese Fifth Columnists in the US just after the outbreak of war. They’re not actually Japanese - they’re American traitors working for Japan. In 1942 this was just the sort of thing audiences would have gone for, Fifth Columnists being a popular subject in low-budget potboilers at the time.
Lugosi plays Dr Colomb, a mysterious figure who seems to be taking an interest in this subversive organisation, although it’s not a sympathetic interest. The members of the espionage ring start getting bumped off one by one with a Japanese dagger left at the scene of each murder.
Dr Colomb has moved himself into the home of a Dr Saunders. The doctor’s niece Alice (Joan Barclay) isn’t quite sure what to make of him. She’s a bit frightened of him but not as frightened as you might expect.
All the murder victims were guests at a dinner party held at Dr Saunders’ home, the purpose dinner party being to advance the plans of the Fifth Columnists to wreck the US war effort. Many of their plans focus on fomenting strikes to disrupt war production although out-and-sabotage is also on the agenda.
Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) is a handsome young US counter-espionage agent assigned to investigate the case, his method being to romance Alice Saunders in order to find out exactly what is happening at the home of Dr Saunders.
Lugosi had made a big impact in White Zombie in 1932 with extreme close-ups of his eyes being used to emphasise his hypnotic powers. A similar (although slightly less effective) technique is used here. Sinister hypnotic powers were something that Lugosi was supremely good at suggesting. He also manages to convey a somewhat ambiguous tone. We assume that (being Lugosi) he’s the villain but he appears to be extreme hostility to the other villains. He’s in fine form, which is just as well since he has to carry the movie pretty much single-handedly.
The other cast members range from adequate to embarrassingly wooden although Joan Barclay isn’t too bad.
Director William Nigh was an incredibly prolific B-movie director, uninspired but competent enough and he at least keeps the pacing pleasingly taut. Writer Harvey Gates had a career that followed much the same pattern - prolific but without notable distinction. His screenplay does at least have quite a few interesting touches.
The plot takes a definite turn towards the outrageous in the latter part of the film as the unexpected truth is revealed about the spy ring, and about Dr Colomb.
The movie tries hard to convey an atmosphere of breathless excitement and succeeds reasonably well, within its B-movie limitations.
This movie is in the public domain. The Elstree Hill DVD offers a transfer that is unimpressive but watchable (and marginally better than Alpha Video standards). The sound is the big problem - it’s uneven and muffled. Alpha Video have also released this one. Black Dragons might not be a great film but it’s interesting enough to deserve better treatment on DVD.
Black Dragons is an enjoyable espionage-themed potboiler with a few definite touches of horror. If you’re a fan of sinister hypnotist movies or a Lugosi fan, or even just a fan of slightly offbeat 1940s spy B-movies, it’s worth a look. Highly recommended.