Sunday, July 20, 2003


I have a soft spot in my moviefan heart for the Charlie Chan films of the 30's and 40's; they are hardly high art but the ones I've seen are satisfying B-level mysteries, and it's always fun to see Chan go about his business in an unruffled, un-Western manner. I was looking forward to the Fox Movie Channel's presentation of the Chan movies, which had been recently restored, but their festival got derailed by a few complaints about the ethnic stereotypes involved. Actually, aside from the fact that Chan was always played by a non-Chinese actor, the films are remarkably free of the kinds of behavior that cause cringing in audiences today--the worst stereotyping I've seen in Chan films involves the shuffling and mumbling black characters, played by actors like Stepin Fetchit and Clarence Muse. At any rate, I was pleased to see this film, the first in the Mr. Moto series. Based on the evidence of this and MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING, the Moto series is a little more subtle and less formulaic than the Chan movies.

Peter Lorre plays Moto, a Japanese cop/spy/detective (I was never quite sure how "official" his job was). Aside from seeing that he has ties with an international police force, we get very little establishing information about him in this first film, which helps to keep him a little on the mysterious side. The opening scene, in San Francisco, has Moto facing off against a man who has just killed someone and stuffed him in a wicker crate. Eventually, we discover this is tied in with the activities of a gang of jewel and drug smugglers who are using the ships of the Hitchings line to complete their nefarious deeds. On one of those ships heading for Singapore, Moto befriends Thomas Beck, son of the shipping line president. He is being tracked (and perhaps tricked) by lovely Virginia Field. A porter of Beck's is a bad guy and meets his end when Moto throws him through a porthole into the sea to his death--an oddly violent incident for this typically mild-mannered sleuth, though in general, Moto is a more physically active detective than Chan. It turns out that a highly placed shipping line associate is the ringleader for the gang. Sets are good, a notch above the typical B movie of the time. One funny line: as a drunken Beck is being put to bed by Lorre, he slurringly says, "You're the Japanese sandman" (quoting a popular tune of the era), to which Moto rolls his eyes and says, "Strange people, these Americans." The climax, with some disguises and double crosses, is pulled off very nicely. The mystery was fairly easy to follow, always a plus in my book. Lorre's "Orientalness" is fairly subtle, and never overdone; in fact, he really comes off more like a typical Lorre character than a typical Asian character.