Hulu has a bunch of classic Boris Karloff films, and I’m going through them because I need fodder for my Bad Movie of the Week series. In the case of this movie, it’s not just that the print available to Hulu was bad—apparently it was. Between when this came out in 1940 and the advent of digital conversion technology, it is possible that any good print would have lost quality due to lackadaisical storage. This is The Fatal Hour, which tells you it’s an hour long, and just about everybody dies.
If you find it strange seeing an English actor (William Henry Pratt) sporting a Russian stage name and playing a Chinese police detective in California, then you are going to find this plot even more intriguing. This film is a product of Monogram Pictures, notorious for it’s catalog of low-budget films and a traditional venue for Boris Karloff. Details are from Wikipedia.
Comedy-tragedy opens the drama. Police detective Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) is visited in his office by the attractive Roberta Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), a newspaper reporter, and obviously a very close friend. She desperately needs a new crime story for the paper’s next edition. Bill tells her that all is quiet on the crime front. Just then they receive word that Bill’s friend, undercover detective Dan Grady, has been murdered. That sets things moving.
Into the case comes Detective James Lee Wong (Karloff). He was a friend of Grady’s, as well, and will be working the case. What I found remarkable in this scene is that Withers stands taller than the man who played Victor Frankenstein’s monster.
A priceless piece of jade jewelry on Grady’s body leads Wong to a down-market jewelry store, where the proprietor, Frank Belden (Hooper Atchley), examines it but can provide no useful information.
We also get to meet Frank Belden, Jr. (Craig Reynolds), an improvident playboy, here pushing marriage plans on the shady Miss Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret) at the Neptune Club, where the late Detective Grady was last seen alive.
In the back room Miss Serova confronts proprietor Harry Lockett (Frank Puglia). She is in cahoots with Lockett on the smuggling operation that involved the mysterious jade. Things are getting tense.
It turns out this is about the last many of these characters are seen alive. First the elder Belden is murdered in his shop. Then Miss Serova is strangled in her apartment. Then the odd character who produced a radio play for the Belden commercial enterprise turns up dead. That leaves John T. Forbes (Charles Trowbridge), the underwriter of the Belden jewelry business and the kingpin behind the smuggling operation. Here Wong demonstrates how a piece of string pulled from another window in the building took the telephone receiver off hook, just in time for the telephone operator to hear a radio program that was playing.
Obviously Mr. Wong knows too much and must also be eliminated. Of course it’s Wong who gets the upper hand and nabs the nefarious Forbes.
It’s an interesting plot, maybe one of the better stories. But the dialog is flat and unmoving, and the acting matches.
Young Belden: Listen Tanya. I’ve been lying awake nights, planning our future together. I realize I haven’t much to offer you, but I’ll try awfully hard to make you happy.
Tanya: Well, excuse me Frank. I think I better go fix my makeup.
And I think I better go line up another Monogram Pictures production for Bad Movie of the Week.