Gene Barry, who made his mark on television as the star of such popular programs as Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law, plays an undercover CIA man on the trail of a kidnapped Arabian prince in the ultra low-budget back-lot thriller Hong Kong Confidential.
With a title like that, how can you resist? From New York, L.A. and Chicago to High School, put the word confidential in your title and count me in. Hong Kong Confidential is the strangest bird in the nest, a 1958 cheapie that clocks in at barely over an hour. There’s not too much meat on these bones, so this review will be as spare as the film.
The set up is as contrived as it is confusing: the American and Soviet governments are both wooing Thamen, some speck of a fictional country in the Middle East, “at the mouth of the Suez canal,” as a spot for an ICBM site. To tip the scales in their favor the reds kidnap the son of the emir in an effort to force the king to ally his country with them (Interesting logic, huh?). Historically a friend of the U.S., the emir receives an “anonymous note” in the wake of the kidnapping demanding that he abandon talks with the Americans and instead embrace the Soviets. He responds with an ultimatum to the CIA: find the crown prince in two weeks or he’ll jump in bed with the commies.
The intelligence service discovers a lead in Hong Kong, and they put their main far eastern asset on the case: one Casey Reed (Gene Barry), lounge singer extraordinaire. Barry gets through this by chewing every piece of cardboard scenery on the back lot sets. He’s over the top the whole way through, but his hammy performance is part of the reason Hong Kong Confidential qualifies as a campy delight. His character manages to track down those involved with the kidnapping, though their guilt isn’t established until the final moments of the movie — all along agent Reed simply has them pegged as baddies and goes after them for no other reason.
The film features women from both sides of the tracks. Allison Hayes plays the mysterious Elena Martine, smuggler and chief bad girl. Hayes is sexy as can be — in an overtly trashy sort of way. She’s that rare actress who manages to look good in hot pants, even at her normal height — later in 1958 Hayes becomes an American pop culture when she immortalized Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. IMDb also tells us that Hayes, like me, is a West Virginian, though unlike me, she got her big break as a Miss America contestant. On the flipside is all-American blonde Beverly Tyler, who plays Barry’s partner in his lounge act: he croons, she’s parked behind the piano. Tyler has no idea that her guy leads a secret life, and she’s devastated when he breaks up the act and heads for Macao. Of course she follows, and in true B-script fashion ends up as a captive of the other woman and her crew of cronies.
Unlike most of the other Confidential films this one isn’t by any means a noir, though on paper it might be confused for one: cheap production values, moody lighting (in some scenes), a bad girl, a rogue hero, and voiceover narration are all present; though there’s none of the determined fatalism, cynicism, or pervasive sense of doom that defines the noir picture. Hayes’s character is certainly bad, but she never manages to pull the wool of Barry’s eyes and couldn’t possibly be described as a femme fatale. The narration here is fascinating — unlike most films that use the device to provide some set-up or let us in the hero’s thoughts, Hong Kong Confidential employs voiceover for purely economical reasons: the narrator fills in story gaps. His omniscient voice chimes in regularly to tie together scenes, and fill viewers in on aspects of the story that are not filmed as scenes — talk about cheap!
The sets are strictly from hunger, clearly trumped-up back-lot hand-me-downs. Nevertheless, cinematographer Ken Peach does a good job with them, and while the film doesn’t have a distinct visual style it does have a few excellent moments of darkness and light. Peach did not have a noteworthy career, though ironically he did film the more noir-ish Chicago Confidential, and well as the fine Ruth Roman / Sterling Hayden vehicle Five Steps to Danger. In another bit of odd coincidence, director Edward Cahn is himself credited with the 1935 film Confidential. Cahn’s filmography is extraordinary, check it out here. It might just be me, but I can’t read a list of titles such as his and not salivate to see each and every one of them. The biggest talent in the crew had to be art director Bill Glascow, who decorated some iconic film noirs — Kiss Me Deadly in particular, and would later earn an Oscar nomination for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Hong Kong Confidential is a small, fun, campy thing. It doesn’t take itself very seriously and doesn’t expect you to. One look at the poster and you’ll know you’re in for a fun ride — or at least that Gene Barry is a fan of the squatting position, and he holds his .38 like a steak knife. Possibly the best thing about it is its availability. And don’t forget to be careful — the guy beside you at the bar might be listening.
Hong Kong Confidential (1958)
Produced by Robert Kent
Written by Orville Hampton
Starring Gene Barry and Allison Hayes
Cinematography by Ken Peach
Art Direction by William Glascow
Released by United Artists
Running time: 67 minutes.