Who is the “sinister man” of the title of this film? We shouldn’t read too much into this, as the title is taken from a book, and the plot bears little relation to the book from which the title is taken, but it is an uncomfortable reminder that the film falls into a tradition of storytelling that makes much mileage from the fear that Asian people were in some way “sinister”. Mercifully we don’t do this any more.
Many of the hallmarks of the genre are present. There’s a made-up Asian country with a vaguely Chinese-sounding name, called “Kytang”, and a sneaky plot to illegally repatriate some ancient artefacts. Martial arts are portrayed as something to fear, with the edge of a hand wielded on screen as if it’s a gun or a knife. Even the Asian characters who are innocent of all crimes are decidedly shifty.
But there is also much to be admired here. The murderer isn’t Asian, nor is he brainwashed by his time in Korea. Instead, he’s simply ambitious and wants money to achieve his goals. The writer challenges the assumption that the Asian character must be guilty, with the detective jumping to the obvious but foolish conclusion that Johnny Choto is the murderer, as if he would do something so pointless and stupid as to keep the broken pipe of his murder victim in a drawer in his room, for no apparent reason. This is clearly absurd, and the detective presumably makes his arrest without thinking too deeply about it, based on an inherent xenophobia. That’s the only explanation that really works, unless he’s the world’s worst detective, and I don’t think that was the writer’s intention for the character. So it’s good to see his lazy assumptions about the Asian dude being the killer because he’s the Asian dude failing to bear fruit for the detective, and I think the writer comes very close to making a great point with that failing on the part of the detective, but a moment to tie it all in together was needed. An apology from the detective to the man he had wrongly and foolishly put behind bars would have helped.
The really positive thing here though, in comparison to most dramas with “sinister” Asian characters from the time, is that the Asian characters are all played by Asian actors. Anyone reading this below a certain age might think that’s an odd statement to make. Why would I be praising a film for using Asian actors for Asian characters? But at the time it was actually very rare. Asian characters from the 60s and before (and actually as late as the early 90s) were commonly played by non-Asian actors in yellowface makeup, their eyes taped back. The interesting thing about this film is how it shows how hollow people’s after-the-fact excuses for that can be. I think when we see actors in yellowface in old films and television we need draw no conclusions other than the following: that was a bad thing, and we don’t do it any more. But many reviewers go further, and seek to excuse the practice with remarks such as this: they had to do it, because there weren’t enough Asian actors working in the country at the time. Like most people who read that kind of thing, I’ve been guilty of simply taking those kinds of statements at face value. People wouldn’t write that based on nothing other than the desire for some kind of an excuse, would they? They would. It’s nonsense. And here we have a film that shows the other side of the coin, made in Britain in 1961, with a large cast of competent Asian actors. There was such a choice of actors that the one who everyone thinks was the go-to for an Asian role, Burk Kwouk, is only required for a brief appearance at the end of the film. The director makes the most of the talent he has with Ric Young as Johnny Choto, who is almost constantly foregrounded in the shot so we can see his reactions while the scene plays out behind him. This turns out to be a very clever choice, as he keeps his frustrations subtle but defiant.
I know I keep saying this, but these films are always worth watching for the great cast, many of whom are actors who were not a huge deal at the time but would later become famous. In relatively minor roles this week we have Wilfrid Brambell, John Horsley, William Gaunt and the aforementioned Burt Kwouk, all actors you will probably recognise immediately, even if you don’t know their names. Letting the side down slightly is John Bentley, who makes for a very dull detective, but Patrick Allen is great as Dr. Nelson Pollard, although I wasn’t much enamoured of the sight of this tall British actor pretending to have a martial arts fight, which looks absolutely ridiculous. I was also not keen on the character of Elsa, who changes her mind about who she wants to marry at the last minute, when an exciting life is put on a platter for her. She’s not quite a gold-digger, but she is certainly a depressing portrayal of the motivations that lie behind a woman in love (or not), as seen by a male writer. Even more depressing is the idea of an estate agent providing a service where fake postcards are posted from around the world for a fee, so somebody can “keep up with the Joneses”. If anyone is remotely bothered about what “the Joneses” think about them, that scene shows where that nonsense might lead.
I found this quite a slow one to watch at times, and I think that’s basically because it fails to function very well as a murder mystery (there’s really not much of a mystery here), and as a thriller it’s not particularly exciting. This is one film where the quality of the acting really has to carry the story, to make the whole thing enjoyable to watch. With any film in the Edgar Wallace Mysteries range, that’s unlikely to ever be a problem. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Backfire!