Saturday, February 03, 2007

The first two MR. MOTO movies

It's probably not politically correct to say so, but I do enjoy the Asian detective movies that came out of Hollywood in the '30s and '40s (to wit, the Messrs. Chan, Moto, and Wong) even if the actors who played these main roles were not Asian. The Japanese Mr. Moto was originally featured in a series of novels by John P. Marquand, and was not exactly an unambiguous "good guy"; usually, he was a secondary character looking our for Japanese interests who wound up helping the American hero out of a tough spot. Though I have reviewed Moto movies before, most of them were very hard to find until Fox released a boxed set of four of the films last year (with the remaining four coming out this month). These first two of the series (both from 1937), like the rest, star Peter Lorre as Kentaro Moto, who is not a detective but a kind of independent adventurer who gets involved in cases of espionage and winds up working with police or government agents. He is much more down and dirty than the more cerebral Chan, quicker with his fists than with his quips. The poster art of Lorre on the cover of the first DVD verges on the offensive, with horribly exaggerated buck teeth, but his actual appearance in the films is not quite so stereotyped.

THINK FAST, MR. MOTO opens quickly but confusingly with Moto, in disguise in a San Francisco curio shop, getting into fisticuffs and witnessing a murder. He books passage to Singapore on an ocean liner owned by the Hitchings company, and becomes friendly with the son of the line's owner (Thomas Beck) who has been a wastrel but is being given another chance at the business by his dad; we soon learn that Moto is on the trail of diamond smugglers who have been using the Hitchings line for their dastardly doings. Virginia Field is Beck's love interest, who may actually be one of the bad guys. Reliable villain Sig Ruman is present, as are J. Carroll Naish and Philip Ahn. The plotline takes a while to develop, but the film is paced well and Lorre makes a solid hero figure, involved in a fair amount of physical action. One scene in which he almost casually tosses a man out of ship porthole to his death is quite startling. THANK YOU, MR. MOTO begins in the Gobi desert as a group of travelers set up camp during a sandstorm and a man is killed trying to steal a scroll painting. Then, as in THINK FAST, we see Lorre in disguise, being held for suspicion of art smuggling, but actually he is, once again, on the trail of people trying to get their hands on a set of scrolls which, when put together, shows the location of the tomb of Genghis Kahn (shades of Fu Manchu!). Ruman is again the chief baddie, Beck is again the handsome Anglo lead (who romances the forgettable Jayne Regan), and John Carradine is a lesser baddie. The most interesting characters here are Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick) who hold most of the Kahn scrolls. There is much skullduggery over the scrolls, ending in tragedy for some. These are both quite fun, and though B-films, never look cheap. [I've previously reviewed MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING and a longer review of THINK FAST appears here. [DVD]

No comments: