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29 March 2015 @ 08:00 pm
Movie Reviewed: Black Dragons (part 1 of 2)  
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Black Dragons
(1942)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, George Pembroke, Joan Barclay, Clayton Moore
DIR: William Nigh

Blurb: Just prior to the start of World War II, Dr. Melcher, a world-famous plastic surgeon, is brought in by Japan’s Black Dragon Society as part of a secret plan. Dr. Melcher operates on six Black Dragon Society operatives and transforms them into exact duplicates of 6 high ranking American businessmen who are replaced by these look-alikes.

[And then it continues on and on… geez, lay out the whole movie, whydoncha.]


Scene 01: So first, before we get to the actual first scene, let’s discuss this musical theme. I have no idea what it is supposed to be representing: It’s sorta-kinda-in-the-realm of spyish excitement, maybe. But it’s also all over the scale and almost sounds like it’s attempting to be random. I don’t like it and it doesn’t tell me anything about the mood of the film that we’re about to see. And the cast and crew credits are front loaded, so we get a LOT of this theme before we can really begin.

We open on 1942 Washington, D.C. and the iconic Capital Building. Some snazzy cars pass by on the busy boulevard.


Scene 02: We fade to a newspaper headline informing the nation that the Japanese have bombed Honolulu during peace talks. Also the mayor is seeking another budget boost but I think it’s the “JAPS BOMB HONOLULU DURING PEACE TALKS” that is our focus.

[Sorry for the racial slur, guys. It’s the 1940’s.]


Scene 03: From this newspaper we fade again, this time to a large, quiet house at night.

Inside, a group of businessmen are meeting over cigars. One of our men asks another about a project he’s working on that apparently the US Army has become interested in [or presumably, as I’m taking that as the reason for the establishing shot because our speaker is clearly a Brit].

The Government, in its infinite wisdom, is looking at plans to build an ammunition dump near a dam. [Yes. Excellent planning.] British jokes that he thought they were spending all of their money on bombers, which apparently is quite amusing as the bombers are quite expensive to manufacture.

Amid mild laughter, our American Businessman Reynolds wanders among the other party goers.

Another businessman, this one slightly intoxicated, is crowing about getting the appropriations increased for another project to an impressed businessman.

Clearly the gathering is all about how to fleece the taxpayer during wartime … [pretty much business as usual, I’d say].

Panning to elsewhere at the party, men are discussing how to increase ship orders from the military for the war effort. Amos Hanlin is the central figure’s name.

Panning back across the gathering, we rejoin Reynolds where someone he is speaking to tells him that the ammo depot site would actually make an excellent place for an entire air base, being difficult to spot from the air.

The ladies and gentleman are called away to the smoking room.


Scene 03: We see another newspaper column indicating that Fifth Column Activity is prominent and puts the U.S. in serious danger.


Scene 04: Presumably, we see the impacts of these traitors out at sea, where we watch a cargo vessel go down to its death.





Scene 05: More carnage, apparently by these Fifth Columnists as we see a building going up in flames despite the valiant efforts of firefighters.

We fade to the businessmen we’ve already seen shaking hands on some deal. Are they the Columnists we’re so worried about?


Scene 06: Next, a bridge is blown up.





We’ve another fade to our businessmen consulting one another.


Scene 07: This leads us into a field fire, where an oil pump ignites.

More of the shaking businessmen hands.


Scene 08: Crowds of people in the streets with patrolmen overwhelmed.


Scene 09: We rejoin our businessmen in a private sitting room. There are six of them and one is congratulating the others on a successful day. One of our businessmen replies that it has been for him, as he can now put his government paid project on hold and eat up more of the appropriations budget.

Discussion turns to a reminder to practice caution and one of our traitors refers to making advanced arrangements to slip into a neutral country in case the intelligence agencies track the sabotage in their direction. Americans in general are insulted.





There are more compliments turned toward their cabal for their precision executions of the sabotage missions.


Commentary: And it’s all relatively boring and taking too much time. I guess it was relatively clever to contrast the beginning dinner party, where they’re all talking about their contracts and sound like legitimate businessmen and this gathering where they’re clearly already foreign agents. But we really didn’t need more than two disaster scenes [I’d choose the ship sinking and the bridge coming down]. I’d also be more interested if I had some way to differentiate them better but they’re being stingy with names and they’re all dressed in 1940’s dark suits.

I was expecting to see them all attacked and replaced so the fact that we’ve come into the story late did surprise me.



Scene 10: We join an arriving taxi. The man getting out is clearly Dr. Melcher [only because he’s clearly Bela].


Scene 11: The meeting inside the home is starting to wrap up, when the butler arrives to inform Dr. Bill Saunders that a patient has arrived unexpectedly to see him. This bothers the doctor as he’s not in the habit of seeing patients at home. The butler says the man’s name is Monsieur Colomb, a name that Bill doesn’t recognize.

He nevertheless leaves his guest to find out who this Colomb is and what he’s after.


Scene 12: As he enters the drawing room, he dismisses the butler for privacy. He mentions not receiving patients in his home, but Colomb tells him he’s come a long way to see him. Bela Melcher/Colomb claims to be a very sick man. Bill mentions to Bela that he doesn’t appear to be in any danger of imminent death [perhaps as a snide comment on his interrupting the doctor’s evening]. Bela tells the doctor that all men are in danger of dying, it’s just a matter of when.





He eye-whammies the good doctor into being more cooperative. Bill asks Bela just who he is and why he’s come there.


Commentary: Okay, I’m totally confused. If Melcher is the plastic surgeon, then maybe these guys haven’t been replaced yet? Are they just plain bad guys whose operation is about to be co-opted by the Japanese intelligence service?

And was it really, really necessary to include the hypno-whammy just because Bela is starring and he did it in Dracula? No, no it was not. And it didn’t even do anything, except make Bill sit down and ask who the hell he is and why he’s there which doesn’t seem like much of a whammy to me.



Scene 13: Before we can receive Bela’s story, we rejoin our group of other Columnists who are waiting for Bill’s return. A plant owner is happily relating that his workers are up in arms and may strike at any time, hurting America’s production at the worst time.

They go on to talk about what other dastardly deeds they can come up with to put a wrench in America’s factory output.


Commentary: Okay, okay… we get it. Let’s stop wasting time with their scheming and get into the meat of the story already.


Scene 14: In the drawing room, Bill is telling Bela that he doesn’t recognize him but Bela tells him that he should be remembering him by now. Bill can only say that the voice sounds familiar.

[Ah! Okay, these are the secret agents who have taken on the businessmen’s identities to undermine the United States’ war effort. And Bela was the surgeon to have done the modifications. Now, we just need to know why he’s showed up here now. Assuming we can stop beating around the dead bush and get on with it.]

As Bill insists that he’s never seen Bela Colomb before, Bela replies that he in fact has, but he’s changed his own identity since then [begging the question -- why did you think he’d recognize you, if you’d changed your face in the meantime Doctor WasteTime]. Now Bill suddenly has a moment of clarity and exclaims that he’s Herr Doktor Melcher.


Commentary: Soooo… doesn’t that suggest that this isn’t Japanese intelligence, but German intelligence instead? Maybe when we get to Melcher’s backstory it’ll explain why the blurb is going on and on about Japan.

[Yes - it’s all explained during the end data dump.]



Scene 15: In the sitting room, the others hear Bill’s frightened exclamation.


Scene 16: In the drawing room, Saunders is on his knees begging Melcher not to do something or other, involving an injection.

When the other burst into the room, they find Bill in his chair, looking dazed. But Saunders tells them that it was just a momentary lapse and assures them that it was nothing serious.

This sounds hollow and his companions make sure he’s really alright. Meanwhile, “Colomb” is sitting calmly. Saunders tells him companions that he believes he’ll be detained by this appointment longer than expected and the cabal members disband the gathering.


Scene 17: As they’re all getting on their coats and hats, one of them comments that the doctor’s new patient looked crazy to him. Another says that something about the new man seemed familiar somehow.


Scene 18: Outside, a taxi waits to take the gang home. They all leave, except for Kearney who is still suspicious of Bill’s behavior with this mysterious guest. After the others drive off, with him claiming that he has a taxi waiting for him already [Uh, an invisible one? Did nobody think to ask him where it’s waiting and finding that a bit weird? For being in a secret cabal, they sure aren’t as paranoid as I’d have expected?], Kearney goes around the side of Doctor Saunders’ home and peeks in the window.


Scene 19: In the office, Bela is making sure that Saunders understands the instructions that he’s been given. Kearney watches as Melcher leaves the office.

The butler is then given instruction that the guest room is to be prepared as “Mr. Colomb” is to be staying for an extended period. Bill Saunders continues to act slightly off, which the butler does seem to notice, but it isn’t enough for him to question his employer’s orders.


Scene 20: In front of Saunders, the taxi that ‘Max’ Kearney apparently summoned while in the house arrives and he smoothly makes his exit.


Scene 21: Or so he thinks: Somehow, Bela is sitting right next to him in the cab but he doesn’t notice until he has the door closed and the taxi is driving. As you’d think -- he asks just what Bela is doing in his cab, though not where he came from or how he didn’t notice a full grown man sitting right next to him.





Bela Melcher/Monsieur Colomb replies that he thought Max might be headed in his direction and then questions whether Kearney knows which way he is headed at all.

Kearney asks how Colomb knows his name and Melcher asks if he’d rather he called him … a name that Kearney clearly recognizes, but that Colomb should not.


Commentary: This scene is really problematic in that I’m not sure exactly what is going on here. It seems that Kearney may be one of our replacements, but he’s acting so squirrelly that I thought maybe he was an undercover agent that had infiltrated the Black Dragons group, or was acting as some sort of informant. The fact that Bela Melcher recognizes him could mean that either or both of those things are true, but it’s not explained just why Max was so bothered by Bela that he spied on the meeting with Bill so we don’t know what the angle is going on.

I’m kind of okay with that part of it, but I do wish we’d have more detail right here about what is going on with the arrival of Melcher under disguise.

But more of a problem is Max getting into the car with Bela literally bumping elbows with him and not noticing until the cab is under way. With Bela’s eye-glare at Bill, he’s being set up as having some sort of magnetic/hypnotizing ability, but that really would not explain the weird blocking of this scene. One could almost wonder if there is a post-hypnotic suggestion in play that can make the agents ignore Bela’s presence until he issues a verbal command otherwise -- but that really isn’t how it plays out. It just appears to be horrible blocking.

Finally, what is going on with the weird headlights in the background flashing on and off while the cab is in motion behind it? Nobody seems to notice the headlights flashing. I can’t tell if this is some deliberate weirdness/signal going on [which seems completely clumsy and stupid] or if we’re supposed to assume that it’s just different cars in the background pulling in behind the cab and turning off on other streets [in which case it utterly failed to give this impression].

Either there is something deliberate going on here, which surely other people on screen should be noticing, or this was just incompetently blocked and filmed and I can’t decide which it is. All I know for sure is that I’m not being pulled into the mystery of Melcher/Colomb or the wicked agents/businessmen moles because everything else is distracting me from the story.



Scene 22: The cab driver pulls up to Kearney’s destination, but when he goes to open the back doors for his two passengers, he finds the back seat empty.

[I’m going to assume that he was under mental domination by Melcher, so that would explain why he wouldn’t notice the two men exit his vehicle while stopped at a light, although they’re really pushing Bela’s abilities nearly to supernatural levels.]


Scene 23: After a shot of the White House to remind us we’re in D.C., we fade over to the Japanese Embassy. But obviously with our nations at war, it is currently closed.

A police officer on foot patrol comes across a man in a suit lying on the porch of said Embassy. The man has a dagger lying across his open palm and is apparently dead.

The victim’s face is obscured so we can’t tell if this is Kearney’s body or someone else.


Scene 24: We get a few headlines describing the mystery corpse on the steps of the Embassy.


Scene 25: Fade to the busy offices of the local F.B.I. bureau.

The body has been identified and they’ve already figured out that the last place the victim was the evening he died was Dr. Bill Saunder’s.

A fresh, young, new FBI agent is assigned to drop in at Saunder’s home without tipping him off that the agency suspects somebody associated with the doctor’s house may have been involved. Chief Colton suggests trying to ingratiate himself with the niece reported to be staying there as an in.


Commentary: Wow. Nice way to just skip over all of the preliminary detective work. And why would Saunders or anyone in his household be an instant suspect, and why would trickery be the first instinct rather than just doing normal police work first. Surely Saunders would expect to be questioned anyway just because he may be the last person to see presumably Kearney alive. Finally, what the hell would the FBI be in this case for anyway? Wouldn’t this start as a local police matter?

[Again, this is all explained at the end, so actually in retrospect it was a clever bit of writing!]



Scene 26: We arrive at Bill Saunder’s residence, where his niece Alice is just arriving with her suitcase.

[Which means yes, somehow the FBI was able to determine that Alice would be staying with Bill before she actually arrived, and somehow intuited that Agent StudCakes should immediately target her as the means into the house, even though simply showing up and asking Bill for information about his final meeting with Kearney would be both logical and completely expected anyway.]


Commentary: Ugh… I really don’t want to waste my time watching anymore of this one. Is this just bad writing, or filmed sequences being shuffled during editing that is now creating continuity issues?

And why exactly would we need a lovely young niece to turn the head of our fresh, young agent anyway?! Isn’t this supposed to be about counter-espionage and sabotage with the added twist of Melcher’s arrival with his own agenda?


[Oh, wow -- Even Alice’s role in all of this is explained in the end and while I’ll still have a few issues with the character being largely pointless, her presence is entirely sensible! Yay, another point in the film’s favor.]


Scene 27: Butler greets Alice and warns her that her Uncle Bill isn’t feeling well, having come down with something after the dinner party he threw the night before. He’s yet to get up for the day.

A knock at the door reveals Agent Dick Martin’s arrival to begin the preliminaries on his investigation. We find out that Kearney was in fact the body on the steps but right now whether he was murdered or committed suicide at the closed Embassy is up for debate.

Alice goes upstairs to check on her Uncle, while Dick asks Butler for directions to the dining room.


Scene 28: Alice tries to coax her Uncle into seeing her, but he won’t unlock his room door. He claims that he’s suffering a bout of nerves and has decided he simply must remain alone in his room for a long rest. Alice looks unsettled by his not greeting her properly.

Bela comes from his own room to her voice. He’s able to sneak up on her and stand at her shoulder without her notice until she literally turns into him.





They greet one another friendily enough, but something in “Monsieur Colomb” demeanor seems to spook her, and she quickly excuses herself to return downstairs. Bela stalks creepily after her.


Commentary: I’m really feeling like somebody is attempting to play off of Bela’s Dracula fame a little too hard for this potboiler crime thriller. The hypnotizing eyes, his ability to silently move, his appearing suddenly and giving people the creeps… all of it having no real purpose except to point out that Bela Lugosi is playing the role. It’s more distracting than mysterious and it’s doing nothing for the general story of what the hell he’s there to accomplish and how he fits in with the Black Dragons agents. Of course, the blurb took care of a lot of this -- but it’d be nice if the actual film would start filling in the details, preferably in a show-not-tell way so we can get invested.


Scene 29: Butler, meanwhile, is glaring at Agent Martin as he wanders the dining room to get a feel for the last place they know Kearney was alive.

He starts upstairs with Alice’s suitcase, where she passes him looking quite unnerved. Behind her, Bela continues to silently follow in her footsteps just adding to her discomfort.

Alice rushes up and puts her arm through Martin’s and asks after his first name. When Bela joins them in the dining room, Alice acts as if she’s known Richard longer than a few minutes and makes introductions.

Agent Martin has no idea what she’s doing or why, so he just blunders on with his questions about the dinner party. Monsieur Colomb claims that he arrived later after the dinner party was wrapping up [which is true], and also claims that he doesn’t know a Kearney [which is more of a white lie… obvs he killed Kearney, but technically he may not have known his assumed identity and knew him by his real name instead]. Bela Colomb doesn’t seem even curious about Mr. Dick Martin [Why isn’t he being addressed as ‘Agent’?] or the murder that he’s asking about.

Monsieur Colomb gives an odd smile and excuses himself with no excuse to Alice as to why he was following her down the stairs. Bela goes across the hall and closes himself in Bill’s office, sharing suspicious stares with Alice and the curious Dick. We get another close up on the hypno-eyes of Bela.


Commentary: Yeah, OKAY! He was Dracula. We get it. But he isn’t in this movie, so frikkin’ quit hammering it home already, especially if you’re not going to actually use him properly in the story. His mysterious stalking around isn’t enough to make his inclusion worthwhile… I want to get some actual story from him, now.


Scene 30: After Bela is behind closed doors, Alice and Dick share banter about the odd vibe he gives off. Dick tries to get more information about him from Alice, but obviously she’s only just met him herself. Dick asks after seeing her uncle, but she reports how oddly ill he is and that she can’t even get him out of his room. Dick finally leaves [after acting just as off-kilter and weird as Bela… honestly, I have no idea what the hell was up with his interactions with Alice. If he was supposed to be flirting, it came off as borderline threatening instead].


Commentary: So, let’s talk a bit about our players so far: The businessmen all came across as boring white guys in suits, so none of them really rate a mention including our main saboteur, Dr. Saunders.

I don’t like that Alice has to show up in the plot just for Agent Martin to have somebody to flirt with, but at least through this point, I do like Joan Barclay and the way she’s approaching the character. I just don’t see why we need her to rescue/expose her Uncle when Loyal-Butler should’ve been able to handle that role in the plot just fine.

But this movie is going to be a bit plodding, if not painful because of Clayton Moore. I’m afraid his idea of an FBI Agent, even a new one, is unconvincing. And he doesn’t seem to know exactly what he should do with the cute-meet/flirt with Alice so the character’s interplay with her is really odd in tone, especially with that weird arm grab thing he did. I don’t understand what the hell Clay thought he was acting during this scene with Joan!



Scene 31: When she returns upstairs, Alice gets a thoughtful look and tries the doorknob to Bela’s room, hoping for a peek. She finds it locked however and has to put the idea to the side as she’s startled by Butler leaving the room he has prepared for her.

She questions Butler about their guest, but he has to admit to not knowing anything other than that he has been presented as a patient of her Uncle’s. They both agree with one another that he comes off as “interesting” though the impression is “odd”.


Scene 32: In her room, Alice continues looking thoughtful about what is going on in the house.


Scene 33: Downstairs, a new arrival appears. He asks to see Bill, despite the Butler claiming that he isn’t seeing anyone that day. After Butler goes upstairs, New Arrival [who is probably one of our other businessmen/enemy agents but I can’t remember any of their faces], goes into Bill’s office and starts rifling through things.

Bela, who was in the office, is nowhere to be seen now.

New Arrival tries to find the key to the locked desk of Saunders.


Scene 34: Upstairs, Butler tries to rouse Bill into coming to see his guest.

On the other side of the door, we see Bela standing over the hunched figure of Bill. Bill’s voice orders Butler to go away and leave him undisturbed. Butler isn’t happy with not seeing his employer and whatever this sudden reclusion is all about, but does as he’s instructed.


Scene 35: New Arrival makes it back to the entrance into the office before Butler can catch him going through desk drawers. When he’s informed that Dr. Saunders cannot see him currently, New Arrival rushes out in a huff.

New Arrival hasn’t left however. We see him at the window to Bill’s office, where he had unlatched it to open it and enter again unseen. After closing the office sliding doors again, despite that looking a little weird since they were just open, he goes back to searching through Bill’s desk.

But behind him, through another door which must lead to back stairs, Bela comes.

On being confronted by Bill’s “old patient”, Mr. Wallace pulls a gun. But Bela is able to knock it away and twist Wallace’s arm behind his back. They struggle with Bela one arm strangling Wallace.


Scene 36: Upstairs, Alice hears the commotion. She rushes downstairs where she tells Butler about the strange noise she heard just below her room. They open the office doors to find nothing out of place.

Sitting in a chair by himself is Bela. To Alice’s report of a thump, he claims to have dropped something and to her claim of hearing grunting noises, he claims he was humming and jokes that he didn’t realize he sounded so badly. Butler is dismissed, while Alice sits opposite Bela to find out more about him and his stay.

[The musical score over this “exciting scene” is so overdone that it sounds desperate. And the way this was filmed was lackluster as well. Instead of cutting between Alice approaching the study door with our seeing Bela having to dispose of the body with only a minute to spare, apparently the score was supposed to fill in that tension. It didn’t work.]

Bela is cagey about exactly how long he’s known Alice’s uncle but offers that he believes he met him first during an international meeting of some sort and implies that they’ve known one another for years. He’s also noncommittal about just how long he’s planning on staying with them.

Getting bored now, Bela offers that he’ll finish his book upstairs but Alice chooses to leave him to it with apologies for the interruption.





This leaves Bela free to retrieve the corpse he’s made from where he tied it within the hanging drapes, something that Alice came dangerously close to bumping into when she was playing with the globe on the table.





He tucks the body in the medical supply room for the time being, incidentally also the room with the back stairs allowing him to traverse between the upstairs and Bill’s office unseen.





For some reason, despite being presumed dead, Bela puts a mask over the man’s face -- implying that he may be resuscitated? Hmmm….


Commentary: This was finally an interesting scene. I really liked the way that the body was hidden from Alice and Butler, as I had thought that Bela had just dumped the corpse out of the window and it was currently laying in the flower bed. I also liked the scene of the body with the rope around its neck lying on the half-gurney, which actually did look pretty macabre. The bit with placing an oxygen mask over what I’d presumed must be a dead man was an interesting touch, making me wonder if he was only near-death or maybe Dr. Melcher did something like paralyzed the man rather than kill him.

So while I wasn’t impressed with anything up to this point, this killing and the doctor’s subsequent actions has me a little more intrigued by his plan. I really wish the initial introductions were handled better though, because it’s been tough to recall who all of these men were outside of Saunders and Kearney and the former is now missing [possibly dead if Bela is using mimicry to impersonate him from behind that locked door] and the latter is now definitely dead.



Scene 37: We skip over to a man in his office who will be one of our conspirators and going by the name of [Robert] Ryder. He receives a call from Chicago by John Van Dyke. After sharing codes to ensure that they’re both who they think the other is speaking to, John gets right to the point. He’s seen the news articles about Kearney’s murder, especially the unnerving detail of his being found at the Japanese Embassy with that Japanese dagger clutched in his hand.

Of equal disturbance is the fact that John hasn’t been able to get Bill on the phone with Butler claiming he’s too ill to take calls. And on top of that, their other conspirator, Wallace is still registered in his hotel but he hasn’t been able to contact him either.

The two men choose to make an immediate flight to Washington, D.C. to find out about this odd business.


Commentary: Finally, some proper names with long takes of faces so I can tell who is who!

Alas for this scene, we have some bumbling over lines by Irving Mitchell as he has a large word blurb about trying to reach Wallace before his return trip to Detroit. It’s minor though, and I’m just relieved that things seem to be getting a shove forward now, as all of our bad guys are converging on the mysterious Bela.



Scene 38: After Ryder hangs up with Van Dyke, his secretary comes in with some papers. She brings a piece of mail that struck her as strange enough not to put it in the basket for later: An advertisement for plastic surgery, but there isn’t any name for the place or the doctor associated.

After she’s dismissed, he glances at the plain white card and it's as she described. He places an urgent phone call to Amos Hanlin in New York.


Scene 39: We join Hanlin in his office. He receives the call from Rob Ryder and looks thoughtful before we fade out.


Scene 40: Hours later, Ryder and Van Dyke arrive at Wallace’s hotel. They phone up to his room, and though he answers [and therefore was in fact revived by Bela], he sounds as strange as Bill through his bedroom door. Nevertheless, he’s able to give the code phrase expected when Rob tests him.

Philip Wallace tells them to come up to his room but we can see his glassy expressionless face, and his flat monotone slurring should have anyone wondering what is wrong with him.

Robert and John share nods and go to the elevator.


Scene 41:  While in Phil’s room, we see a hand reach out and grab his shoulder. It is, of course, Bela Melcher. He spins Phil around in his seat and Philip starts moaning “no, no” in horror as Bela gives him the Glaring Eyes Of Doom look. He reaches forward off screen at the cowering, but helpless Wallace.





It is strongly implied that he re-strangles Philip as the man sits paralyzed under a hypno-whammy.


TBC