Finally, I make the acquaintance of "Chinese copper" Mr. Wong. I'm a big Boris Karloff fan, but the thought of him playing a Chinese investigator has always struck me as a bit weird. Every so often, the makeup actually makes him look a tiny bit Chinese, but his accent is thoroughly English. No matter, though, because Karloff is a great enough actor to make the part his own, anyway. The film itself is vintage stuff, with all of the 1940s detective movie clichés showing up in spades. You've got the obvious suspect playing it really cool with the cops, the disgruntled policeman determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, and of course the nosy femme fatale journalist always getting in the way but ultimately playing an important part in the end. I had a great time watching Police Captain Street bark orders left and right - he yells at everybody at least once, except for Mr. Wong.
Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) calls in the help of James Lee Wong (Karloff) when a fellow cop washes up on the beach dead one morning. The dead cop had been investigating a jewelry smuggling ring down on the San Francisco docks, and since there was an Oriental link to that investigation, Wong is happy to step in and provide whatever assistance he can. A tip links the dead cop with the Neptune Club, and that makes the club's sleazy owner, "Hardway" Harry Locket (Frank Puglia), an obvious suspect. Captain Street also finds a mysterious connection to a costume jewelry store owned by Frank Belden, whose son is mixed up with a dame connected to Locket. Things get more complicated as a series of additional murders take place, and Captain Street gets grouchier as the bodies begin to pile up. He's particularly annoyed by Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), a newspaper reporter who is always getting in his way and interfering with the investigation. Street is fortunate to have Wong on his side, as his own "yell at him until he confesses" interrogation techniques fail to crack the case wide open. In the same vein, though, Wong is fortunate to have Street backing him up when he succeeds in putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. That dame reporter proves pretty handy as well, in the end.
This isn't up there with Sherlock Holmes or anything, but Fatal Hour offers up a pretty good whodunit that plays out somewhat unpredictably. The characters are pretty stereotypical, but that's what you expect from a film of this era. Personally, I want my 1940s flat-foots gruff and moody. Karloff's good, but Mr. Wong is too subtle and methodical a character to carry the movie on his own - that's why Grant Withers pretty much makes the movie for me.