Wong Low Get (Edward G. Robinson) is the hatchet man for one of San Francisco’s Chinatown Tongs, having inherited the position from his father. The “hatchet man” position is just what it sounds like: he doles out justice with the help of a small but sharp axe.
When a war erupts between the Tongs and a man of his own Tong is killed, Wong Low Get is ordered to kill his own best friend, Sun Yat Ming (J. Carroll Naish), in revenge.
Sun Yat Ming writes a new will just before he dies, leaving everything to Wong Low Get, even the guardianship of his young daughter, Toya. Reluctantly, Wong Low Get carries out his duty with his hatchet.
Fifteen years later, Toya (Loretta Young) is all grown up… and Wong Low Get, now a wealthy businessman, has fallen in love with her. The two marry, but their relationship becomes complicated when more Tong wars are threatened and Wong Low Get hires a bodyguard (Leslie Fenton), to whom Toya takes an immediate liking.
The Hatchet Man was directed by William Wellman, based on a play by David Belasco and Achmed Abdullah.
The Hatchet Man opens with a bang — the bang of a mallet hitting a gong, that is. The Tong war flag is seen during a funeral procession, and the crowd flees, seeking shelter from the impending storm of violence. It’s an appropriately tense start to a film about a man who kills people with a hatchet for a living!
I’ll get the obvious out of the way first in discussing this film: it’s full of white actors playing Chinese characters. This is not exactly unexpected for a film from the 1930s, but it’s always off-putting to see this type of casting in action. Today’s filmmakers and stars are promptly and rightfully called out for inappropriate casting. (See: Rooney Mara in Pan, Emma Stone in Aloha) Moviegoers in 1932, however, wouldn’t have given a second thought to Romanian Edward G. Robinson or American-born, devout Catholic Loretta Young playing Chinese Buddhists.
The film’s terrible makeup and ridiculously fabricated character names are definitely strikes against it. But keeping the context of the time in mind, I’m of the school of thought that while we should acknowledge these issues in classic-era films, we should not use them as the sole criteria by which to judge a film.
So, I’ll say this: If Hollywood thought it needed a white actor for the leading role in a 1932 film about Chinatown crime, Edward G. Robinson is at least a good fit in that he plays a character not unlike many of his usual gangsters. In most scenes he performs like he would in any other film — no strange attempt at an accent, a personality not much different from any of the New York criminals he played so often throughout his career.
If you can look past the fact that the majority of the characters are being played by white actors, the film does also offer an interesting historical story. I knew nothing of the Tong wars prior to watching, and the film sparked me to do some research on the topic. The plot turns more toward traditional crime drama and romantic melodrama than a thorough exploration of Chinatown society or its Tongs after the first twenty minutes or so, flashing forward fifteen years. But I always appreciate a film that can bring a lesser-known aspect of history to my attention.
Additionally, for all of its faults in makeup and casting, I must at least give the film props for its costumes and sets, which are lavish and beautiful. I’m not too sure of the accuracy of some of the clothing styles or elaborate architectural details (such as in Wong Low Get’s rooftop garden), but they sure are stunning to look at, and the photography does a wonderful job of emphasizing them.
The Hatchet Man is a film with a few flaws and issues aside from the obvious. The script could use a jolt of excitement, the premise falling short of its potential to become a hard-hitting, gritty crime drama. A bit too much focus is put on a romance that the viewer has difficulty investing in — not just because of the age difference, but because Wong Low Get raised Toya from the age of six and knew her even longer. (Skeevy!)
However, The Hatchet Man does offer a unique twist on the usual crime drama by adding in the historical element of the Tong wars, and I’d love to see a film about those wars done right — with Chinese/Chinese-American actors, and more of a crime-centric script.