Saturday, October 22, 2016

HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL (1958)


This United Artists film uses periodic voice over narration akin to a documentary newsreel. The Robert Kent Production sounds authenticated and unfolds the story with the smallest studio sets, looking more like an early television play. Yet in one scene they manage to squeeze in a current model Ford through one tiny street, leaving little room for the studio lights let alone the Asian extras to walk about on cue. It is a tale of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and the special government agents assigned to resolve an unusual case.


The Communists “new weapon” is to kidnap the son of an Arab King to pressure him into not signing an agreement with the United States to build a missile base in his small Arab nation. Assigned to find the prince is undercover agent, Gene Barry, who is posing as a lounge singer in a tiny Hong Kong nightclub set. This is the standout moment in the film. Barry had a voice but his body rhythm here is hilarious. Stiff and corny. His left and right arms doing whatever they want as if, in his mind, he planned moving right but his body suddenly felt compelled to move left. Cannot fault him for trying his best to sell a lame song about himself. But he is definitely a “footloser.” Few would ever guess he is an intelligence agent, so in that regard he is in deep cover. His love interest and accompanist is played by Beverly Tyler in her last film before transitioning to television. She is not undercover yet her faked piano playing made me suspicious.



After Barry’s informant is killed, King Calder, the intelligence agent recommending Barry for the prince retrieval, shares evidence that the informant had ties to Allison Hayes, who is under surveillance for gold smuggling to the Communists. Hayes can play untrustworthy through makeup and wardrobe alone. She resides in another small Asian film set called Macao. So Barry has about forty feet to travel, not forty miles. In the hopes of flushing out the kidnappers, Barry sells her on his smuggling plan of mass producing souvenirs, yet after the cheap metal is burned off, is solid gold underneath.


Barry discovers a medallion belonging to the kidnapped prince in the office of Noel Drayton and the kidnapping mastermind is revealed. Hayes sets up a meeting with Drayton but double-crosses Barry at gunpoint, forcing him to a cellar where Drayton awaits with the kidnapped prince. Smugly, he tells his plan to pin the kidnapping on the American Barry. He and the prince will be killed after the Arab King signs the papers to let the Commies establish their own missile base. All wait impatiently for that important phone call. But Barry comes up with a plan to disrupt the telephone service that is right out of a Bond playbook. In the standard secret agent ploy, he needs to stand and stretch and is granted that relief. With outstretched arms he casually picks up one of several pointed, thick metal pins lying near the telephone. Really not sure what they are, yet it is pretty obvious he is up to something. I am surprised Barry was not whistling a random tune. Drayton is oblivious. Suspended disbelief at its best. When he sits back down, one arm dives between the cushions where the telephone line is and pokes the pin through the rubber encased telephone cable and not his thumb. Drayton must call from an upstairs phone to confirm the signing. He leaves Hayes alone with Barry. Uh-oh. Moviegoers knew what was coming next. In her “duh” moment, Barry volunteers to light her cigarette but overwhelms her with his charms...uh...arms, knocking the gun from her hand and as she stumbles hits her head in the fall. Drayton returns and graciously accepts a bullet. Barry and the prince escape.


One evil-doer is holding Tyler as Barry leverage. Barry kicks open the door, stands back as Asian bullets shoot the hallway full of lead. Without looking, Barry shoots around the door frame, killing the man. Yes. He is that good. At that very moment, another man is ready to shoot Barry in the back but he is shot in the back by Calder. This could have gone on a few minutes in a Zucker Brothers film. Tyler’s suspicions about Barry’s dancing abilities become clearer when she learns of his real occupation.

Barry handles suave with the best of them and this film highlights his talents. It is all fairly silly and predictable but the secret agent premise beats the Bond pictures out of the starting gate. Still, I would love to hear Simon Cowell’s comments about Barry’s dance moves. I can almost hear the buzzer. 

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