Boris Karloff plays Harry Wong the "Chinese copper" without looking even faintly Chinese with a bit of eye make-up & slicked back hair, perhaps the most ridiculous casting of his whole career.
Though the character was ostensively based on a figure from short mystery tales by Hugh Wiley, the short stories have distinct charm & historical interest for San Francisco's Chinatown.
The film The Fatal Hour (1940) on the other hand is a generic tale of murder, gangsters, & smuggling without a sense of place or society other than the society of back-lot Hollywood.
Virtually all action in The Fatal Hour occurs off-screen, as the budget, a scant $1,000, did not permit anything to occur beyond talking & walking about.
The purpose of the Mr. Wong films was to coattail & cash in on the popular Charlie Chan detective series, but with even more improbable casting & lackluster scripts.
On the one hand it is a nice assumption within these films that a Chinese detective could be working with caucasian police & investigating white crimes without racial conflict. But any possibility of progressive attitude is spoilt by the very racist assumption that a film about a Chinese detective couldn't possibly be successful with a Chinese actor.
The tone of Mr. Wong's character would've been totally different had someone like, say, Keye Luke ("number one son" in the Charlie Chan films) played the lead. And indeed, in the sixth & last James Lee Wong detective film, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), Keye Luke replaced Karloff, to vastly improved effect.
It could be argued, however, that Boris playing Mr. Wong without affecting a hoky accent or imitating Charlie Chan's fortune cookie sloganism was an attempt at respecting the character, though these choices increased the sense of the absurd in that we're supposed to believe a Caucasian guy more than six feet tall is a Chinese guy.
Storywise, in The Fatal Hour, detective Wong's manner of "investigation" is to walk around & that's about it. The one original moment in the story is the manner by which a radio program is incorporated into a plan of murder.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl