For Reel

The Hatchet Man (1932)
June 30, 2012, 7:25 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William A. Wellman

Between 1930 and 1934, William A. Wellman directed a total of twenty pictures for Warner Brothers. Chief among them are gangster staple The Public Enemy, the newly recognized racy masterpiece Safe in Hell, and Night Nurse, an early Barbara Stanwyck classic. Speed was prized in the era of studio filmmaking and, as such, Wild Bill was certainly a chief asset to the studio for practicality reasons alone. His pace, however, is not to be mistaken as complacency or a lack of vision – his most prolific period is perhaps his best, and a film like The Hatchet Man marked him as one of Hollywood’s most challenging and innovative directors of the period. Viewers today will scoff at the casting of Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese hatchet man and Loretta Young, also in yellow-face, as his love interest, but neither embarrasses the characters they play through condescending accents or mannerisms. Indeed, Robinson plays things no different than his typical American gangster – he’s a tough, ruthless man with a soft side. The opening sequence, shot mostly in a single take, follows a funeral procession that slowly escalates into a Tong war. Gliding through the mayhem with an unusual grace, Wellman often interrupts the shot by cutting to the strike of a gong. The effect is irritating, unsettling – the tone is set for the bleak sequence to follow in which the eerily calm Robinson must execute his best friend.

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