Lippert Pictures made some pretty decent crime B-movies in the early 50s. Their 1951 offering Mask of the Dragon is not one of them. It also has very very slender claims indeed to being a film noir.
It has the right ingredients - a mysterious jade dragon, international smuggling, an innocent GI duped into becoming involved in crooked dealings and the exotic Chinatown settings. But having the right ingredients is sometimes not enough.
An American soldier stationed in Korea, Lieutenant Daniel Oliver (Richard Emory), is about to be sent home. He gets an offer from a local dealer in oriental antiquities. All he has to do is to transport a jade dragon back to the US and deliver it to a collector in Los Angeles, a Professor Kim Ho, and he can make himself a couple of hundred bucks. The lieutenant had apparently worked in Military Intelligence during the war. All I can say is that Military Intelligence must have been hard up at the time because this young officer is definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Even more worrying is that Oliver works as a private eye during peacetime, which makes it even more surprising that he’d fall for such an obvious routine. Of course the jade dragon is not what it seems, and Professor Kim Ho most definitely is not what he seems. In fact he’s a master criminal. The jade dragon is evidently worth killing for because eventually two people are murdered for it.
Oliver’s partner Phil Ramsey (Richard Travis) has to untangle the clues to solve the mystery, a mystery that would be unlikely to tax the brainpower of a moderately intelligent five-year-old child. He has help from his girlfriend who works in the scientific section of the LA Police Department. His most promising lead is a blonde who works for a small television station.
We get treated to some of the highlights of the station’s programming. I can only assume this was intended as satire, television being not exactly popular among movie-makers in the early 50s, although perhaps live TV programming in 1951 really was as dire as this. We even get to hear not one but two songs by a truly awful western singing trio known as The Trailsmen.
Even though the movie’s running time is very short indeed (just 53 minutes) there’s really only enough plot for a half-hour episode of a TV series so there’s quite a lot of padding and the pacing is painfully slow.
Even worse there’s way too much comic relief, provided by the incredibly irritating Sid Melton. Any amount of Sid Melton would to too much, and there’s a lot of him in this movie. The acting is mostly fairly awful, with some very bad Chinese accents, although Lyle Talbot is fun (as always) as the head of the Homicide Squad.
Sam Newfield had a prolific career as a director of B-movies, some of which were quite decent. With a dull screenplay by Orville Hampton and a threadbare plot there’s not much he can do here.
The incredibly corny organ soundtrack makes this movie seem even more cheesy than it already is. This really is a terrible movie, and I say this as a fan of low-budget Hollywood B-pictures.
This movie is included in the VCI/Kit Parker Films Forgotten Noir DVD boxed set. The transfer is quite reasonable.
Mask of the Dragon is proof that sometimes forgotten movies are forgotten for a very good reason. Avoid this one.