If you like James Bond and Indiana Jones, Judge Paul Corupe urges you to give Mr. Moto a try.
"Oh, so?"—Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)
Appearing in almost 50 films throughout the 1930s and 40s, Charlie Chan may have been Hollywood's most popular Asian sleuth—but he wasn't the only one vying for the title. Soon after Chan made his successful screen debut courtesy of Fox, poverty row's Monogram Pictures answered back with the Mr. Wong series. It starred Boris Karloff as a copycat mysterious visitor from the Orient who ferreted out cold-blooded murderers and spies. The most interesting character in this sudden rush to portray Far East crime fighters to the screen, however, also came from Fox, and was conceived as an action-oriented companion series to the ever-popular Chan films. Eight Mr. Moto films, each starring Peter Lorre, appeared at the end of the 1930s, and thrilled audiences with international intrigue, clever disguises, and judo brawls.
Hot on the heels of Fox's release of Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 1 comes Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 1, a tasty box set that collects four of Moto's adventures for the first time on DVD.
Facts of the Case
• Think Fast, Mr. Moto
• Thank You, Mr. Moto
• Mr. Moto Takes a Chance
• Mysterious Mr. Moto
After Charlie Chan scribe Earl Derr Biggers passed away in 1933, Pulitzer-prize winning author J. P. Marquand took the baton. He created ruthless Japanese spy Mr. Moto for his own series of pulp novels, starting with 1935's Your Turn, Mr. Moto. In many ways the new commercial successor to the throne of brilliant Asian detectives, Moto was soon scooped up by Fox, who at the time were having incredible success with their ongoing Chan movie series. Only loosely based on Marquand's novels, the eight Mr. Moto films that followed remain some of the most consistently entertaining B-movies of their time.
Often made by the same cast and crew as the first-rate Chan films, the Mr. Moto series was similarly well-crafted, making the most out of sets left over from Fox's A-productions and a dollop of stock footage. Moto may have been Asian and he solved crimes, but most comparisons with Honolulu sleuth Charlie Chan end there. As opposed to the sometimes staid Chan entries, which would frequently end with the well-worn plot device of gathering all the suspects in one room so that the ingenious detective could reveal the true culprit, Moto was quick with a gun and even faster with his judo. He'd often forgo parlor room theatrics to callously kill his enemies when threatened.
Though always portrayed as an international man of mystery, the most significant change from the novel to the films is Mr. Moto's job. In the first few celluloid entries, Moto is revealed as a prominent importer/exporter, who plays at detective as a hobby. Later in the series, he is suddenly an agent for the International Police, a vaguely defined organization that apparently travels all over the world in search of criminals and spies. Typecast since his career-making performance in M, Mr. Moto was truly a breakout role for Peter Lorre, who plays the diminutive dynamo with ease and skill. With the simple addition of glasses and a pair of buck teeth, Lorre offers us a complex pulp character that hides a flair for shrewd planning and vengeful violence under a thin veneer of carefree graciousness, in many ways anticipating his later duplicitous roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. It's somewhat ironic that Lorre would be chosen for this physically demanding character, since at the time he was battling both health problems and a growing morphine addiction. Though the raucous fight scenes (at least two per picture) are clearly handled by stunt professionals, it thankfully doesn't distract from Lorre's charming but calculating character at all.
Actor-turned-director Norman Foster handled five of the eight Moto films, and four of his satisfying efforts are offered in this set. Though all of the installments here are really top-quality B-productions, Thank You, Mr. Moto stands slightly above the others as the most enjoyable effort, featuring an intrigue-filled plot that opens on a sherpa-disguised Moto almost murdered in the first few minutes, and then following him as he deftly escaping the police with a valuable ancient scroll. From there, Moto spends the rest of the film running from one end of Peking to the other to help his friend, Prince Chung regain his lost fortune. The fragmented treasure map gimmick is an effective one, and though we don't actually get to travel to Genghis Khan's tomb, this is action-packed fun in the best Moto tradition. Another solid entry in the series, Mysterious Mr. Moto has a little trouble getting started, but it turns out as one of the better entries, with a drunken barfight that decimates an entire pub, and an a wonderful (but easily guessed) twist ending that puts the detective in one of his most outlandish disguises. Mr. Moto Takes a Chance is slightly more standard fare, but it remains unique by incorporating all sorts of jungle excitement, including poison blowgun darts, secret passages in ancient temples, and a violent shoot-out ending. Think Fast, Mr. Moto, the character's debut, is the least distinctive entry, but that's probably because Fox was cautiously sticking to the Charlie Chan formula, with a last minute reveal, and significantly less action than the other three films. All in all, though, these are easily accessible thrillers that set the standards for modern big-budget B-heroes like Indiana Jones and James Bond.
Like their earlier Chan box, Fox's Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 1 looks pretty good for a collection of almost 70 year-old films. They are occasionally a little bit fuzzy, and nicks and scratches crop up throughout, but Fox has again worked wonders on the transfers, and they are significantly better than the prints shown in the restoration comparisons in each disc. I would even say that on the whole, they look better than the Chan restorations. The 2.0 stereo soundtracks are nothing particularly special though-they get the job done, but little more.
While it's great that Fox was able to produce some extras for this set, they are disappointing in comparison to those excellent supplements included with the Chan films. Each 15-minute biographical featurette here-"The Mysterious Mr. Lorre," "Directed by Norman Foster," "Sol Wurtzel: The Forgotten Mogul" and the stunt-man focused "A Conversation with Harvey Parry"-only really touch on the Moto films briefly. I would have really preferred to see a piece on J. P. Marquand and some discussion of the books, but perhaps that's being held back for the next volume There are also some split screen restoration demonstrations and trailers for Think Fast, Mr. Moto and Thank You, Mr. Moto on each disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's worth noting that some will no doubt be offended by the simple fact that Hungarian-born Lorre is playing a buck-toothed Japanese detective. While the Mr. Moto series is far less racially troublesome than the Charlie Chan films, which often compounded the Asian ethnic caricatures with similar use of stereotypical African-American character actors like Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit, those sensitive to these issues should probably avoid this set, even if Moto is never portrayed derogatorily. Interestingly enough, there is some actual mention of racism in the series. In Mysterious Mr. Moto, Moto enters a bar and is harassed by the locals, who tell him "we don't serve your kind" here, something they come to regret much later.
Despite their low budget, formulaic plots and quick shooting schedules, each film in Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 1 is a hugely enjoyable adventure in the finest pulp tradition, combining melodrama, romance, action, intrigue and murder into an easily digestible 65 minutes or so. Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long for the remaining four films in the implicitly promised Volume 2.
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Scales of Justice, Thank You, Mr. Moto
Perp Profile, Thank You, Mr. Moto
Distinguishing Marks, Thank You, Mr. Moto
• "Sol Wurtzel: The Forgotten Mogul" featurette
Scales of Justice, Think Fast, Mr. Moto
Perp Profile, Think Fast, Mr. Moto
Distinguishing Marks, Think Fast, Mr. Moto
• "A Conversation with Harvey Parry" featurette
Scales of Justice, Mr. Moto Takes A Chance
Perp Profile, Mr. Moto Takes A Chance
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Moto Takes A Chance
• "The Mysterious Mr. Lorre" featurette
Scales of Justice, Mysterious Mr. Moto
Perp Profile, Mysterious Mr. Moto
Distinguishing Marks, Mysterious Mr. Moto
• "Directed by Norman Foster" featurette
Review content copyright © 2006 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.