Saturday, July 14, 1973: Terror of the Tongs (1961) / Dante’s Inferno (1935)

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Synopsis: Captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone) is on his way from Singapore to Hong Kong, a route he travels frequently transporting freight for Britain’s East India Company. A passenger on his ship, Mr. Ming (Bert Kwouk) gives Sale a children’s book to give to his teenage daughter Helena (Barbara Brown). Unbeknownst to Sale, Ming slips a document into a hidden pocket of the book. After arriving in Hong Kong, Ming is killed on the docks and the body is carried away by his relatives — or so Sale is led to believe. In fact, the body has been spirited away by the Red Dragon Tong, a ruthless underworld gang that operates freely in Hong Kong.

Sale returns home, and the document hidden in the book is intercepted by Maya (Marie Burke) a maid in Sale’s household.

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At a meeting of the Red Dragon Tong, leader Chong King (Christopher Lee) orders his men to secure the document Ming had carried. Sale’s house is broken into, and Helena is tortured and killed. Determined to find who is responsible, Sale visits the home of maid Maya, only to find that her fingers have also been brutally chopped off by attackers who ransacked the house, and the document is gone.

At the gambling club that serves as Chong King’s headquarters, we learn that the document is a list of Red Tong operatives in Hong Kong; had the list fallen into the hands of law enforcement, the Tongs would be forced to abandon their lucrative gambling, prostitution, extortion and opium rackets in the district. Chong King burns the document, knowing that everyone who might have seen the list is now dead with the exception of Sale himself, and he orders his men to find and eliminate him.

Meanwhile, Sale is just as determined to go after the Red Tongs himself, and he finds an unexpected ally in Lee (Yvonne Monlaur), a young woman who worked for the Tongs but has switched sides because she knows the terror they have inflicted on her people. But is the innocent Lee ready to face the brutality the Red Tongs would inflict if they knew she had betrayed them?

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Comments: Terror of the Tongs was made in a more innocent time, when the world seemed much larger than it does today, and a when a western actor, through prosthetic make-up, could portray an Asian character and be accepted by audiences without a second thought. In fact, all of the large Asian roles in this film are filled by westerners, including Christopher Lee as Chong King and Yvonne Monlaur as Lee.

Christopher Lee actually does about as well as could be expected as the Fu Manchu-esque gangster Chong King, and his rich baritone carries the right notes of menace. Less effective is Yvonne Monlaur, who doesn’t even bother to disguise her French accent. As to her character — a pure-hearted, flower-of-the-Orient type — the less said the better.

The movie was written by Jimmy Sangster, who also wrote The Stranglers of Bombay two years earlier; and the similarities between the two make it clear that Terror of the Tongs is basically just a retelling of that same story, set in another exotic locale and name-checking another notorious 19th-century organized crime ring.

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All this probably makes it sound like I’m panning the movie, but I’m not. If you’re going to recycle one of your previous movies, The Stranglers of Bombay is a good choice. This retelling has the added bonuses of a) being in color; and b) featuring Christopher Lee in the heavy role. While it’s a fairly low-octane Hammer entry it works well enough, and Sangster delivers a couple of unusual story elements. For example, I was genuinely surprised that Sale’s 16-year-old daughter Helena was killed by the gang (after having her fingers chopped off); teenagers are usually exempt from death and dismemberment in films of this era. And the bone-scraping torture scene later in the film, while tame by today’s standards, was probably walking the line with British censors of 1961.

As in The Stranglers of Bombay, the British East India Company is portrayed as the main civilizing force in the lawless Orient, and the stolid Geoffrey Toone plays pretty much the same role that the stolid Guy Rolfe played in the earlier film. Movies like this, with their keen nostalgia of the glory days of the Empire, were quite popular in postwar Britain — and the obvious exploitation elements didn’t hurt either.

Truth be told, you can’t really go wrong with a Hammer film on Horror Incorporated, and this one is no exception.

 

Dante’s Inferno

 

 

Synopsis: Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is a guy always looking to make a fast buck. He is working as a stoker on board a steamship, but because his arm’s in a sling he can’t shovel coal; instead he takes bets on which of his able-bodied comrades can shovel coal the fastest.  But it turns out he doesn’t need the sling at all; he just wears it to get out of working. An officer on the ship sees that he’s malingering.  He tells Carter that he’ll be docked a month’s pay and put ashore at the next port. That’s okay, Carter says – he’s got a job waiting there anyway.

It turns out the job in question is at a carnival: he sticks his head out of a circle cut in a piece of canvas, and customers throw baseballs in hope of hitting him in the face.  This isn’t much of a job, even during the Depression, and he quits before the first day is out.  Without a penny, Jim meets an older gentleman, Mr. McWade (Henry Walthall) , whom Jim immediately nicknames “Pop”.  Pop stakes him a meal, then shows Jim his concession at the carnival: a dusty and modest collection of artifacts meant to depict the Hell described by Dante in “The Inferno”. The exhibit, Pop says, is designed to be a warning to carnival-goers to stick to the straight and narrow.  Almost immediately Jim meets Pop’s fetching daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and the two hit it off.



Pop offers Jim a job, telling him that he needs someone to help clean up a bit.  This is clearly charity, as the Dante exhibit is not much of a going concern.  Seeing Pop struggle to draw a crowd to the booth, Jim sees a way to help.  He tells Pop that he has had some luck barking at carnivals in the past; can he give it a try?  Pop sees no reason why not, and Jim shouts to the crowd a fanciful — but completely false — story of what they’ll find inside the exhibit.  “Beautiful women and big strong men!” he yells.  “And they’re burning, they’re burning, but still alive  — you can see them burn, crawling along on their bare bellies!” He pulls in a huge crowd, bigger than any Pop has ever had. Pop is a little uncomfortable that Jim’s sales pitch isn’t entirely honest, but Jim knows what all showmen know – that deep down people want to be fooled.

With Jim’s help the Dante’s Inferno booth becomes a success. Pop is happy with things as they are, but Jim sees a way to take things to the next level. He gathers a group of carnival booth operators together and asks them to invest in a new and spectacular “Dante’s Inferno” attraction. When they point out that Pop’s space isn’t nearly big enough to accommodate Jim’s ambitious plan, Jim tells them that he wants to swap spaces with Dean, the owner of a log flume ride.  But Dean tells Jim that he has no interest in leaving his site.  This seems to kill the idea in its tracks, but Jim knows that Dean is months behind on his rent.  Jim buys the site out from under him, then ignores his pleas for more time to move the equipment out, even though he knows Dean will be ruined. Pop is surprised that they acquired the space so easily, but Jim assures him that it was all settled amicably.


In going over the plans for the new exhibit, Pop talks excitedly about the various stations were people will witness the punishments of the damned.  Seeing the grotto reserved for treachery, Jim comments that people in the 14th century judged sins very harshly.  Pop disagrees, saying “The sins of Dante’s time are the sins of today.”

The spectacular new exhibit opens with great fanfare and is a smash hit.  The opening night is marred only by the reappearance of Dean, now a penniless widower, who commits suicide by throwing himself off a high balcony into the deepest part of the Inferno exhibit.

Soon Jim has built a huge network of carnivals, amusement parks, dance halls and gambling clubs. Annoyed that the local mob is trying to get him to pay more in protection money than he’s been paying up until now, Jim buys a 500-foot steamship, the Paradise.  He plans to use the ship as an ocean-going gambling club.  On the high seas, he reasons, he won’t need to deal with the police or the mob. 



Carter’s building inspector Harris reports that the Dante’s Inferno exhibit is unsafe, but Jim persuades him to drop it — first suggesting that he might lose his job, then giving him an envelope of cash.  But when the building does collapse, Pop is injured and Jim must stand trial for criminal negligence.  Recovering in the hospital, Pop shows Jim his copy of Dante’s Inferno, telling him that what Dante wrote about wasn’t simply a carnival exhibit, but a guide for living:

“Like you,” Pop says, “Dante found himself on the wrong road. The spirit of Virgil came to him in a vision and guided him through the inferno.  Let me show you the punishments that were revealed to Dante for the evils of Lust, Avarice, Blasphemy, Perjury, Murder and Suicide….”

Comments: The idea of Hell as a literal place where you might end up spending eternity has become an unfashionable one in the modern world, but for many centuries there was a certain grim utility about it.  If the carrot of Heaven wasn’t enough to make people behave (spoiler alert: it wasn’t), at some point the stick of Hell had to be brandished. How effective it was as a deterrent to sin is debatable, but Dante Alighieri’s 14th century work The Divine Comedy introduced a lurid conception of Hell that persists to this day. In fact, so vivid was Dante’s description that the first canto of The Divine Comedy,  titled Inferno, eclipsed the other two (Purgatorio and Paradiso) in the public mind.

There has always been a carnival side-show aspect to Inferno, as we are invited to be voyeurs peeking in on the torments of the damned, and so it’s only natural that a movie dramatizing Dante’s most famous work would prominently feature a carnival.

The core of this particular movie is a striking 11-minute sequence that depicts a stylized vision of divine punishment, in which the damned writhe and flail in lakes of fire, men and women turn into trees, and people drop off rocky cliffs into sulfurous pits and nightmarish grottoes.

Built around this sequence is the story of Jim Carter, who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps through grit and determination.  We admire the way in which he’s gone from penniless drifter to entertainment tycoon in a few short years, but at the same time we know his hands aren’t entirely clean. He buys Dean’s concession out from under him and doesn’t give him enough time to move his equipment out; as a result, Dean is ruined financially.  Jim is apparently cheating his early investors; when one of them comes asking what has become of the money he put into the operation, Jim tells them that it’s tied up in stock and he can’t pay out until the amusement park is sold (this is clearly a lie, and the “stock” the man purchased is apparently nonexistent).  He then gives the investor (who now works in Carter’s amusement park) a few dollars a week in order to send him on his way, acting as though this is an act of generosity. He pays off the mob for protection and when his building inspector warns of unsafe conditions in his exhibit, he first threatens to fire him and then pays him a bribe to keep him quiet.

To Jim, this dishonesty is no worse than the bait-and-switch of a carnival barker. It’s the cost of doing business, the only way to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world.  When Pop begins to talk about sin and and the need to follow the straight-and-narrow path, Jim laughs it off.  “Since the beginning of time there’s only been one sin,” he tells Pop, “and that’s failure.  People don’t care how you win, so long as you win”.  Nevertheless he tries to hide the worst of his dealings from his family and from Pop.  But eventually (to mix our theological metaphors) the karma train pulls into the station, and Jim must face up to what he has done.

The anchor of this movie is Spencer Tracy, in one of his last movies for Fox before moving on to MGM.  Tracy had been working in film for five years but was not yet a star; he was lucky, as the Marx Brothers had been, to be courted by MGM’s Irving Thalberg.  Thalberg had a keen eye for talent and knew how to maximize a star’s potential.  Within a few years Tracy was a household name, having appeared in two hit movies, Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).

It’s widely assumed that Fox squandered Tracy’s talent while he was signed to the studio, but that isn’t quite right;.  He is actually well-cast in Dante’s Inferno, bringing the character of Jim Carter vividly to life.  We get a sense of Carter as a boy who never quite grew up, with a mischievous streak, and determination to prove that he’s the winner he always believed himself to be.  It’s a very American sort of character, and Tracy’s open and honest demeanor works extremely well in selling the character to us.

Claire Trevor, who would play tough cookies in 1940s noirs, portrays a rather conventional supportive wife role here, but she does as well as the script demands.

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One comment

  1. THE TERROR OF THE TONGS remains a lesser known Hammer for Christopher Lee, ethnic actors like Marne Maitland, George Pastell, and Roger Delgado sure to be cast to type. Spencer Tracy never liked DANTE’S INFERNO, his last film at Fox before bolting to MGM, but it’s always been a crowd pleaser for TV viewers and also appeared once on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater.

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