Our film today is one that is an example of a sensitive subject in the history of movies. It’s often known as “yellowface.” In other words, the practice of having asian roles played by non-asian actors. Almost all of the characters in 1932’s The Hatchet Man are of asian descent, but very few are played by actual Asians.
Our story begins in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where a Tong war is breaking out. Wong Low Get (Edward G. Robinson) is the hatchet man for the Lem Sing Tong. If you’re not sure what a “hatchet man” is, well, let’s just say he eliminates problems and he uses a hatchet to do it. He must always obey his orders, even when the order is the execution of his good friend (J. Caroll Naish). His friend knows his time is up and even goes so far as to forgive Wong Low Get in advance and ask him to raise, and one day marry, his young daughter, Toya San.
Years later Toya San has grown into a beautiful young woman (now played by Loretta Young). Wong Low is now a successful businessman and the time has come for him to marry the girl. Rather than forcing her, he decides to ask her. She chooses to honor her father’s wishes and marry the hatchet man. Unfortunately, at the same time, another Tong war begins to break out. To ensure their own safety, the leaders of the Tong hire some men to be their bodyguards. Unfortunately, one of the young men, Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), had previously spent a night dancing with Toya San. One day, while Wong is in Sacramento practicing his hatchet skills on a rival gangster, the romantic sparks begin fly between his wife and her bodyguard.
When Wong returns, he discovers the couple together. His first thought is to kill Harry, but remembering his promises to Toya’s father, he lets him live. In fact, he allows the couple to keep seeing each other. This doesn’t go over well with the Tong, who essentially cast Wong out. He eventually ends up on the street, having lost his wife and his business. After a while, however, he gets word from China that Toya has fallen into trouble. So, he heads off, hatchet in hand, to take care of business.
This is another interesting example of a pre-code film. There’s a lot of unpleasant stuff…adultery, axe killings, you name it. There’s certainly a lot of juicy stuff here and several moments of the film are quite gripping. It’s directed by William Wellman, so the man in charge certainly knows what he’s doing. The scene where Robinson discovers his wife and her lover together is very tense. But I must admit, I also felt there were a few moments that dragged a bit. Still, I was pulled into the story enough to not be too bothered by the slow moments. Plus, the final sequence of the film, which I certainly don’t want to spoil, makes it all worth it.
I would imagine that some modern viewers will find the casting of the film somewhat distracting. Edward G. Robinson is clearly not Chinese. But the man is a pro! To say he is an imposing figure in this film doesn’t even scratch the surface. When he loses everything, he also becomes a rather sympathetic character. Robinson handles the two extremes expertly. Loretta Young is also quite mesmerizing, even if her makeup is a bit more awkward and unnatural looking.
Though the makeup may be a bit strange, I will say that the set designs are very impressive. I couldn’t help but think of Big Trouble in Little China when noticing some of these very detailed sets. Not only do they look great, but they’re used in some interesting ways. For example, in one sequence in which Fenton and Young (dressed quite seductively) are engaged in their extra-marital activities, a large carved demon head is on the wall behind them.
There is a lot to like in The Hatchet Man, though I admit that it may be a challenging film for many viewers. Edward G. Robinson, though, makes it well worth the effort. Remember…he’s got an axe.