One usually associates anticommunist melodramas and thrillers of the late 1940s and early '50s with such hysterical, paranoid examples such as Jet Pilot (1952, release delayed until 1957), Red Planet Mars (1952), and Big Jim McLain (1952), movies so cartoonish and politically naïve they've evolved into enormously entertaining high camp. Although Target Hong Kong (1953) has a similarly outrageous premise, by B picture standards it's simply too well made to be so easily dismissed. In recent years I've developed quite an appreciation of B movie actor-turned-B movie-director Fred F. Sears. While no great, unheralded auteur, Sears knew his way around such pictures and how to maximize their potential despite modest budgets and absurdly tight shooting schedules. Target Hong Kong is one such example. Richard Denning, a prolific, likeable leading man of bottom-of-the-bill fodder in the '40s and '50s (though his career stretched back much further), stars.
Target Hong Kong gets a terrific (and appropriately) full-frame, black and white video transfer via Sony's manufactured-on-demand "Choice Collection," for my money the most consistently interesting of the MOD labels these past several years.
In present day Hong Kong, Russian Communist Suma (Ben Astar) has fooled fervent Chinese Nationalist Lao Shan (Soo Yong), owner of a popular casino, to provide arms and men for a planned takeover of that city. Further complicating matters is that Suma, via his Chinese communist henchman, Fu Chao (Richard Loo), is also laundering ransom money, paid in American dollars (by Chinese-American families desperate with worry about their relatives back home), through Madame Shan's casino.
Into this muck steps gambling addict Mike Lassiter (Richard Denning), a perpetual but genial loser who insists on placing all his sic bo dice game bets on the number 13. He flirts with Lao Shan's adopted (and Caucasian) American daughter, Ming (Nancy Gates), but then is beaten and kidnapped by two former partners, Dutch Pfeifer (Henry Kulky) and Dockery Pete Gresham (Michael Pate). (Denning is doubled but Kulky himself takes quite a beating in this scene.)
Mike is taken to a small, secret headquarters operated by Chinese nationalists Sin How (Philip Ahn) and very Americanized Johnny Wing (Victor Sen Yung), who work in tandem with Dutch and Pete, American anticommunist agents. Mike himself is revealed as an anticommunist spy, or at least an agent-for-hire. The nationalists and American agents ask Mike to join their cause. Mike demurs but eventually agrees because the job has him staked out at the casino, watching for Suma's henchmen and trying to figure out how and for what purpose the American dollars are being funneled. They equip Mike with a then-cutting edge miniature microphone and transmitter.
Though obviously made on the cheap, Target Hong Kong packs a lot of action into its 61 ½-minute running time, including a pretty exciting climax that has the cast scrambling through the catacombs under the city ("A nice place," says Mike, "For rats!") in search of a huge bomb Suma sends floating on a raft toward a military complex.
Part of Target Hong Kong's effectiveness is due to its rather ingenious use of stock footage from some forgotten epic, particularly in two big scenes: one in which Red Chinese attempt to burn down a large section of Hong Kong, and the other a pitched battle between communist and anticommunist forces in, apparently, a train yard. The origin of this footage is unknown but appears to date back to the late 1930s at least. To my eyes the battle in the train yard seems to be footage of pre-communist Chinese fighting invading Japanese soldiers, at least based on their uniforms. There's also what appears to be newsreel-type stock footage from 1950s (or, at least, not 1930s) Hong Kong, which is also well integrated into the narrative.
Much of the last act takes place in those aforementioned catacombs, an elaborate set incorporating forced perspective and cleverly painted backdrops. Whether this was built for the film or (more likely) left over from another film, or perhaps it was a long-standing set frequented by Columbia's serials, is unknown to this reviewer. In any case it gets quite a workout here.
Today Richard Denning is remembered primarily as the Governor of Hawaii on Hawaii Five-O, and for his sci-fi movie appearances: Unknown Island, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Creature with the Atom Brain and others. In a strange coincidence, the word "Target" in the onscreen title card of Target Hong Kong, is identical to that in Denning's Target Earth, made the following year. Oh, useless arcane factoids, how you clutter my brain!
But Denning had a long and varied career that also included playing Lucille Ball's spouse on My Favorite Husband, the radio series that preceded I Love Lucy, and later for television he starred as private eyes Michael Shayne and one-half of Mr. and Mrs. North. His screen persona was genial and immensely likable, and he was good-looking yet also acceptable as an ordinary everyman.
Naturally, Target Hong Kong was a boon to Chinese- (and a few Japanese-) American actors. Richard Loo (The Man with the Golden Gun), Philip Ahn (Kung Fu), and Victor Sen Yung (She Demons) all had long careers in such films and TV shows and are instantly recognizable here.
Video & Audio
Target Hong Kong was released just as the widescreen revolution was getting underway, but its February 1953 premiere and obvious framing for 1.37:1 indicate without a doubt that this was meant to be exhibited full frame, which it is here on DVD. The image quality is excellent, with rich blacks, good detail and contrast throughout. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
While no lost classic, for what it is Target Hong Kong is very well done and Highly Recommended for fans of such films.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.