Judge Paul Corupe puts on his glasses and becomes Mr. Corupe for his investigation of this classic detective series.
"Half the world spends its time laughing at the other half, and both are fools."—Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)
Appearing in almost 50 films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie Chan may have been Hollywood's most popular Asian sleuth, but he wasn't the only one. Soon after Chan made his successful screen debut courtesy of Fox, Poverty Row's Monogram Pictures answered back with the Mr. Wong series, starring Boris Karloff as a copycat mysterious visitor from the Orient who ferreted out cold-blooded murderers and spies. The most interesting Far East crime-fighter, 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, thrilling audiences with international intrigue, clever disguises, and judo fights.
Fox has finally followed up its amusing Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 1 with Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 2, a second four-disc set that sees the remainder of the Asian spy's thrilling adventures arriving on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Moto in Danger Island
Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre, M) heads to Puerto Rico to thwart international diamond smugglers holed up in a swamp once patrolled by deadly pirates. Along with this episode's sidekick, wrestler Twister McGurk (Warren Hymer, Sea Racketeers), Moto must uncover the high-ranking government official tied up in this mystery as his suspects keep dying off.
Mr. Moto's Gamble
While teaching a class in sleuthing, Mr. Moto becomes embroiled in the case of a boxer who is murdered in the ring when he is punched with a glove covered in fast-acting poison. Two of Moto's students, Charlie Chan's No. 1 son Lee (Keye Luke, Alice) and kleptomaniac Knock-Out Wellington ("Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, Each Dawn I Die) try to help him, but they're no match for Moto's deductive powers as he uncovers a gangster forcing fighters to take a dive for a big payout.
Mr. Moto's Last Warning
In this film, Moto comes against a spy ring trying to start another war by blowing up French battleships in the Suez Canal and blaming the English. When an investigating British Secret Service agent (John Carradine, House of Frankenstein) is murdered, Moto goes undercover as a Japanese antique dealer, putting a stop to their plans with the help of a well-meaning English tourist (Robert Coote, Gunga Din).
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation
In Mr. Moto's final case, the inscrutable crime-buster must cut short his well-deserved time-off to protect the crown of the Queen of Sheba, a priceless Egyptian artifact. He follows the treasure to a New York City museum, where he comes up against a ruthless gangster, as well as Metaxa, a world-famous jewel thief with a hidden identity.
After Charlie Chan scribe Earl Derr Biggers passed away in 1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. P. Marquand took the baton and created ruthless Japanese detective 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, which at the time was having incredible success with the 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.
On this set, the connection between Moto and Chan is even more pronounced than usual, since Mr. Moto's Gamble was originally planned to be a Chan film called Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Several days into shooting, however, Chan portrayer Warner Oland began having mental and physical health issues and, instead of striking the entire production, the script was hastily rewritten to suit Mr. Moto. Of course, most audiences probably would have picked up on this even in the 1930s, since Lorre is forced to significantly tone down the traits that set his character apart from the sometimes staid Chan. Instead of judo-chopping his way out of dangerous situations and turning over a ruthless killer to the police, he is forced here to use the typical mystery plot device of gathering all the suspects in one room to reveal the true culprit. This last-minute detective franchise switch also explains the film's prominent role for Chan's son Lee, as played by Keye Luke. In the re-shot opening, Moto even asks Lee to send his regards to his "honorable Pop." Overall, Mr. Moto's Gamble is a solid addition to the Moto canon, even though the relative lack of thrills means that it may appeal more to fans of 1930s detective series in general.
The rest of the films in this highly enjoyable set are much closer to the familiar Mr. Moto mold. With a swashbuckling atmosphere and a fairly original mystery, Mr. Moto in Danger Island is probably the best of the lot, an exciting potboiler that sees Moto handily manipulate the criminals by secretly sending a telegram to the police claiming he is not the "real" Moto, but an imposter and a murderer on the run from the law. This ingenious plot twist allows Moto to go undercover and infiltrate the gang to discover the real mastermind behind the diamond smuggling. It's a neat idea that really puts the series in a class by its own when compared to other pre-World War II sleuths.
Likewise, in Mr. Moto's Last Warning, Moto employs another Asian man to pose as himself on a steamer boat while he works undercover in his shop—a handy ploy, especially when the spies catch on and kill the man they think is the world-famous detective. Obviously playing off fears of another world war, this is another well-crafted thriller featuring reliable supporting performances from George Sanders (who starred as The Falcon and The Saint) and John Carradine, who sports a laughable phony beard. Unlike the other entries here, it's also worth noting that Mr. Moto's Last Warning has been available as a public-domain release for several years and remains a budget-priced buy for those who want to give the character a shot before investing some cash in this admittedly pricey box set.
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation has the long-running series coming to an end—and just in time, too. While still a fun ride, this film feels a little lethargic and Lorre, who was anxious to move on to different roles, doesn't seem quite as enthusiastic about reviving Moto one last time. It also doesn't help that the true identity of "master criminal" Metaxa is easily guessed in the first reel and the comic relief (supplied by Lionel Atwill, Mystery of the Wax Museum) mostly falls flat. With a good share of intrigue and the requisite judo brawls, Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation isn't a bad film, per se, but rather a clear indication that the series had finally run its course.
Once again, Peter Lorre's excellent performance as the diminutive dynamo is the main reason that these films are such a pleasure to watch. With the simple addition of glasses, Lorre creates a complex pulp character who hides a flair for shrewd planning and vengeful violence under a thin veneer of carefree graciousness, in many ways anticipating his later appearances in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Although he was battling health problems and a growing morphine addiction at the time, Lorre's personal demons are never apparent on screen, a testament to his professionalism and skill as an actor. Even the producers' idea of saddling the cold-blooded Moto with a comic sidekick in these particular entries can't slow down the action; the "wacky" antics don't diminish the films in any way, nor do they distract from Lorre's charming but calculating characterization.
Like their first set, Fox's Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 2 looks pretty impressive for a collection of films almost 70 years old. 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. The 2.0 stereo soundtracks are nothing particularly special though—they get the job done, but little more.
Surprising fans, Fox has once again graced this set with some fun and informative featurettes that make up for the lackluster inclusions of the last set. We get "Mr. Moto is Missing," which describes the effect of World War II on the series; "Mr. Moto Meets Mr. Chan—The Making of Mr. Moto's Gamble"; "Mr. Moto's Creator: The Late John P. Marquand"; and an overview of the character called "Meet Mr. Moto." The most exciting extra has to be The Return of Mr. Moto, a 1965 film that cast character actor Henry Silva as the martial arts-savvy detective, featuring a commentary by Silva himself, but, unfortunately, the reinvention of Moto is a no-budget bore, trying to cast the character as a James Bond-like spy without any actual action scenes. It's for completists (and possibly masochists) only. There are also split-screen restoration demonstrations on each disc, along with a smattering of trailers for other Moto films.
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. A few stereotypically scared African-American character actors also make minor appearances on this set (including Stepin Fetchit) and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation even regrettably features a Caucasian dressed in blackface for a costume party.
Despite their low budgets and over-reliance on formula, these are fun, easily accessible, 65-minute programmers that set the standards for modern big-budget B-heroes like Indiana Jones and James Bond. Mr. Moto Collection, Vol. 2 is heartily recommended to aficionados of melodrama, romance, action, intrigue—and especially murder.
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Scales of Justice, Mr. Moto's Gamble
Perp Profile, Mr. Moto's Gamble
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Moto's Gamble
• "Mr. Moto Meets Mr. Chan-The Making of Mr. Moto's Gamble" featurette
Scales of Justice, Mr. Moto In Danger Island
Perp Profile, Mr. Moto In Danger Island
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Moto In Danger Island
• "Meet Mr. Moto" featurette
Scales of Justice, Mr. Moto's Last Warning
Perp Profile, Mr. Moto's Last Warning
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Moto's Last Warning
• "Mr. Moto's Creator: The Late John P. Marquand" featurette
Scales of Justice, Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation
Perp Profile, Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation
• "Mr. Moto is Missing" featurette
Review content copyright © 2007 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.