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The Secret Game
  |     review    |     availability     |


Region 1 NTSC
World War I Films of the Silent Era
Image Entertainment
Black and White
Full Screen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital 2.0

Year: 1917
Director: William DeMille
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky, William C. DeMille
Cast: Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Holt, Florence Vidor, Mayme Kelso, Raymond Hatton, Charles Ogle
The Skinny: Silent era matinee star Sessue Hayakawa stars in this espionage thriller that features a remarkably progressive depiction of an Asian protagonist in a Hollywood picture.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

     Regarded as Hollywood's first Asian male star, Sessue Hayakawa starred in over eighty films in his long career. One such picture was William DeMille's The Secret Game, a silent movie released in 1917. Although many would suspect that a Hollywood picture from that era would grossly caricature Asians, what's notable here is how progressive the film is in making Hayakawa the sole lead. Certainly, some noticeable stereotypical characterizations still exist, but overall The Secret Game is a historical document that proves remarkably compelling.
     Hayakawa stars as Nara-Nara, an agent in the Japanese Secret Service. Due to allegiances with the West (it's pre-WWII, after all), he is charged with sniffing out a traitor among his country's American allies. It seems that the Germans have infiltrated the office of Major John Northfield (Jack Holt) in the body of an unlikely foe, the Major's pretty secretary, Miss Kitty Little (Florence Vidor). She's apparently in league with Dr. Ebell Smith (Charles Ogle), a sadistic bastard who'll stop at nothing to steal intelligence detailing the U.S.'s covert operations in the Pacific. Using nothing but his wits and some nifty spy gadgetry, Nara-Nara eventually uncovers the traitors in what amounts to a surprisingly gripping espionage picture, especially for a silent film.
     Sessue Hayakawa stands out in this picture, in more ways than one. Whereas Asian male actors nowadays tend to be paired with non-Asian stars in major Hollywood pictures (that is, if given leading roles at all), Hayakawa is allowed to carry The Secret Game alone. He is not a sidekick to an American character, nor is he given one to make the film more "palatable" to American audiences. That, in itself, is an amazing achievement, especially considering the negative and/or compromised depictions of Asians in cinema that still exist today. Dressed in sleek clothes and impeccably groomed, Nara-Nara comes across as a Japanese James Bond, highly competent at what he does and undeniably cool. So much for the emasculated Asian male!
     Sadly, the film falters in its last act thanks to Nara-Nara's sudden, out-of-character obsession with Kitty Little. In one scene, he goes from gentleman spy to out-and-out lusty cad, forcing himself on the reformed villainess. The jump seems forced and rather insulting from a modern perspective. Even worse are the lengths to which the film stoops to eliminate Nara-Nara from the film's love triangle, denying his status as a sexual rival and reasserting the preferred Caucasian male-female relationship through the union of Northfield and Kitty. It's a sour way to end things, but it doesn't throw off the remarkable strides made in the first three quarters of the film.
     But still, while definitely notable for its historical and cultural value, let's not kid ourselves: by today's standards, The Secret Game is not exactly a summer popcorn film. It's got a thin plot, loads of unintentional humor, and plenty of deadweight "dialogue" (in the form of onscreen text). Then again, it's probably wise to cut the film a break. After all, it was filmed during the infancy of American cinema, and for many, watching this black and white movie will feel a lot like checking out a musty old book out at the library. How that sentence makes you feel will probably determine whether The Secret Game is worth a look. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)

image courtesy of Image Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen