black dragons | william nigh | harvey gates | bela lugosi | joan barclay | george pembroke | propaganda | thriller | war | based on | story | robert kehoe | united states | clayton moore | robert frazer | edward peil sr. | robert fiske | irving mitchell | kenneth harlan
Film: Black Dragons
Director: William Nigh
Writer: Harvey Gates
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Joan Barclay and George Pembroke
This is a movie that I didn’t know about until searching for horror from 1942. I saw that this starred Bela Lugosi, so this was another movie I could tick off my list of the unseen from him. The title was also quite interesting. I will say that settling in, I saw that was a war/thriller according to the Internet Movie Database and Letterboxd had it in horror. This was enough for me to watch it.
Synopsis: a cabal of American industrialist, all fifth-columnists intent on sabotaging the war effort, are methodically murdered by the malevolent Monsieur Colomb (Lugsoi). It is only until Detective Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) is assigned to the case that everyone’s true motives and identities are revealed.
We start this movie in Washington D.C. This is taking place around the time that peace talks between the United States and Japan have come to an end when Pearl Harbor is attacked. It then takes us to a party that is put on by Dr. Bill Saunders (George Pembroke). With him is Amos Hanlin (Robert Frazer), Phillip Wallace (Robert Fiske) and John Van Dyke (Irving Mitchell). I might have left someone out, but there is this group that the synopsis is referring to. We also get a newspaper talking about the fifth column operating in the US. The men putting this party on are all part of it. They are doing subtle things that are disrupting America with World War II.
The party gets interrupted when Monsieur Colomb shows up. The butler tries to tell him that he cannot come in, but Colomb insists. Dr. Saunders then comes in. At first, he doesn’t recognize him. Colomb reveals who he is and Dr. Saunders panics. This draws the attention of his guests. The party soon after breaks up and we see Colomb in the taxi with one of the attendees. This person is murdered and found dead on the steps of the Japanese embassy.
The next morning, Dr. Saunders’ niece shows up to his house. Her name is Alice (Joan Barclay). She is admitted to the house, but when she goes to see her uncle, he won’t allow her in. She is spooked by his new house guest, Colomb. The murder also draws the attention of the police. Dick Martin is a rookie who is assigned to the case. It is found out that the deceased man was at a party that took place at the Saunders’ residence. He goes there for information. Alice takes a liking to him and wants his protection when Colomb comes into the room, informing her to leave her uncle be.
There are more murders of guests that were at this party. The evidence shows that what happened at Dr. Saunders’ could be a catalyst. Dick tries to get to the bottom of this and we even see that the FBI has a stake in the game. What did the members of this party, Pearl Harbor and Colomb all have to do with each other to explain these events?
That is where I’m going to leave my recap as well as introduce our characters. Where I want to start is that we have an interesting concept here. I read some trivia that this movie was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor. This is an interesting piece of cinema to come out during the Hays Code. I’m assuming that since this comes off as a propaganda film, it was approved. What is also interesting to me is that this isn’t listed on IMDb as horror. Having watched it, I can see why it isn’t listed there. Looking back and trying to put myself in that time, this would be horrific in my opinion. You don’t know who you could trust, especially if they looked different. Pearl Harbor would also make it terrifying. Not so much today. I still think this would fall in the genre and I’ll explain why.
From what I know from history class, the US citizens for the most part banded together in the war effort. What is interesting here is that we get introduce to these industrialists that are profiteering. The more we hear, we realize that they are also sabotaging different things. My first thoughts there were what we still see to this day. Tough decisions are made that will hurt workers to ensure that those at the top profit. This isn’t horror in the traditional sense. I do need to state that. Something that happens in the end shocked and made sense to me. The only thing that confused me was that it seemed like these guys were doing this before their encounter with Colomb. Despite that, these guys are doing what powerful families have done throughout US history. Taking a situation and doing what they can to make money off it.
What also makes this horror is that we have Colomb killing these individuals. That doesn’t necessarily push this into horror, but something we see regularly with Dr. Saunders and then others. It seemed to me like he was making them in zombies. This isn’t the case. We will see in the end the truth. I’ve already said that I liked what they decided to do here. What I will say is that the truth of Colomb, who he is and what he is doing pushes this into horror for me as well. This is using an idea that would be popular in the 1950s and on. This movie seems to be paving the way a bit for those narratives. I’m trying to be vague and not go into spoilers as a heads up.
Then the last bit for the story is the idea of the Black Dragon Society and the Fifth Column. For the former, this seemed to be a real group in Japan that formed. It originally tried to distance from doing illegal activities but found this to be a means to an end. They were there to promote Asians and their countries. It does seem that FBI agents in real life arrested members of this group in San Joaquin Valley, California. That makes it feel to me there is some truth to this movie. It also seems that in the Manzanar internment camp, a small group of pro-Imperial Japanese flew flags of Black Dragon to intimidate other inmates. Going along with this, Fifth Column are people inside a city/country/something along these lines that sabotage to help their cause. These two groups that are incorporated make this in a spy movie for sure. The lengths they go though can be horrific.
I think that is enough for the story so I’ll go over to the acting. I thought that Lugosi was good in his role. He just plays a villain so well. I also like him at the end with a reveal there. Barclay is fine as Alice. What is interesting there is that she is distrustful of Colomb. Especially since he won’t let her see her uncle. There are interesting things with this relationship as the movie goes on. Moore was fine as male lead looking into everything and trying to get to the bottom. Pembroke and the rest of the industrialists were solid. I like the reveal with them. It made the ending bleak and I’m down for that. The acting here is solid across the board.
Other than that, it would just be the filmmaking. I think that the cinematography here is fine. They don’t do a lot with it that stands out. I don’t have issues with it either. There’s also not much in the way of effects. The deaths are done off screen. There is an interesting reveal at the end of the movie that I wasn’t expecting. That was creepy. The last thing then would be the soundtrack. It didn’t stand out to me, but it also worked for what was needed.
In conclusion, this is an interesting film that is combining elements of spies with thriller and horror. The story had something I wasn’t expecting. I think that Lugosi plays a good villain. The rest of the cast around him was fine. This is playing on the fears of America at the time which is interesting. I also like that it is using real groups like ‘Fifth Column’ and ‘Black Dragon Society’. This won’t be for everyone though. I recommend this to those that want to see an intriguing propaganda film made around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. If you are into the history of horror cinema, this has a unique place in my opinion.
My Rating: 7 out of 10