In the 1930s the B production unit at 20th Century Fox was most famous for the Charlie Chan series of mysteries. A total of 26 Chan films were made there between 1931 and 1942. The series was quite successful for the studio and by the late 1930s they were looking for other characters to feature in similar films. John P. Marquand, an American writer, had written a series of mysteries featuring Mr. Moto, an internationally active Japanese detective, as serials, and soon Fox decided that they could convert the character into a movie series. They recruited Peter Lorre, the Hungarian actor who had gained fame as the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, to play the title role and set to work on the films. Eight films were made between 1937 and 1939. Many of the creative people behind the Chan films were involved in the production of the new series. The Mr. Moto mysteries were popular but the public’s increasing dislike for the Japanese on the eve of World War II brought the series to a premature end. There was a one-off revival in 1965 with Henry Silva as Moto but the film was unsuccessful and cinemas have not seen Mr. Moto since. Here, each of the films will be discussed briefly and some general notes will be provided.
The best films in the series are the first two, Think Fast, Mr. Moto and Thank You, Mr. Moto (both 1937). Think Fast, Mr. Moto has a fast pace and a lot of intrigue. It has a series of set pieces and action sequences that work well and maintain viewer interest. In comparison with the Chan films Mr. Moto emerges as a much more action-oriented hero. He performs judo and is willing to kill his enemies quickly and without regret when called upon. The story hops the globe from San Francisco to Shanghai, where Moto engages with beautiful women and dangerous criminals. The follow-up was nearly as good. Mr. Moto is found working undercover in Northwestern China on a case involving the smuggling of ancient artifacts. There is again a lot of action and Moto’s skills at judo and deception are on full display. The films establish Mr. Moto as nothing less than a proto-James Bond. He travels the world working on high profile cases for the International Police. He seems capable of anything, including violence, and he even has a girlfriend stashed away in Shanghai. While Peter Lorre was no Sean Connery in terms of physical appearance, he gives memorable characterizations and makes for a compelling central character. The films are low budget but convincing enough in their portrayal of international locales. The films also make limited use of humor, a trait that would soon change.
Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film in the series, is a significant let down. It began life as a Charlie Chan film but Fox had to change plans when Warner Oland, the first Chan star, passed away. The differences between the series are obvious right away. Moto is reduced to a much more passive character. He teaches a class on criminology, moves slowly, and makes pithy comments rather than doing something. The entire film takes place in San Francisco and thus lacks the international angle so important to the success of the first two films. The film also introduces comic relief in the form of “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom. He plays a boxer and amateur detective who has been hit on the head one too many times. Many of the Chan films had similar characters and this one is a painful reminder of just how unnecessary they were. While it is an oversimplification, it is true that Moto as James Bond works much better than Moto as Charlie Chan.
The follow-up film, Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), returns to the globe-trotting, international policing ways of the first two entries. Set in Cambodia, the plot involves the efforts of colonial governments to thwart native uprisings in the jungle. Not as strong as the first two films, Chance at least gives Moto a chance to get back into action. He even uses machine guns at one point! Its follow-up, Mysterious Mr. Moto, is a slight improvement, but its London setting and more traditional mystery makes it more run-of-the-mill than the earlier films. Lorre is as good as ever in these films, but like all actors he is limited by the quality of the material he is working with and can only do so much.
The series continued in this vein with Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1938). This episode is set in Egypt and involves international tension over a plot to blow up the French fleet in the Suez Canal. While the setting and plot are worthy of Mr. Moto, the way it plays out is disappointing. Mr. Moto is at his best when he provokes his enemies or makes a move to draw them out; here, he mainly waits for them to act so he can expose and destroy them. Mr. Moto in Danger Island (1939), is an improvement and the last film to hark back to the early days of the series (just two years previously!). Set in Puerto Rico, the film sees Moto brought in to try and stop a ring of diamond smugglers. There is copious action, Moto is in the middle of most of it, and the mystery is hard to solve. The film is only marred by another of the comic relief characters, this time a wrestler played by Warren Hymer. Still, this was the last hurrah of the Moto series.
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939), the final film in the original series, is set mostly in America and highlights the features that make for a bad Moto film. There is little action, a lot of talking, and little for Peter Lorre to do. The two films set in America are actually the two worst films in the series. One of the joys of the series is seeing Mr. Moto work effectively in different settings and cultures, so perhaps the American films lose something by missing this element.
The attempt at resurrection, The Return of Mr. Moto (1965), simply isn’t very good. Henry Silva plays Mr. Moto as a relative of James Bond (making the link the earlier films hinted at obvious) but the film lacks the action necessary to succeed as an international spy adventure. Silva isn’t nearly as good as Lorre and comes across as too-cool-for-school most of the time. The plot involves the sabotage of oil fields in Iran and could have been interesting if we actually went to Iran, but instead we are stuck in London, talking and seeing Mr. Moto almost get killed by people in cars. Who can’t catch him. Even though he is on foot. The whole effort is pretty awful and must have looked particularly bad coming out the same year as the sophisticated Thunderball.
The Mr. Moto series was above average for a B series and arguably had a better median quality than the Charlie Chan films. However, they are marred by some of the most glaring and offensive examples of racism in classic Hollywood. Like the Chan films, they elected to have an actor of European descent play an Asian hero. They gave Lorre bad teeth, a bad haircut, and had him speak in broken English. He is often described as mysterious by other characters and was clearly meant to represent the mysteries of the Orient. He is intelligent and a man of action but he often assumes a subservient role in order to gain information or advantage. In many of the films characters played by Asian-American actors are quickly killed off as plot devices. Eventually, the appearance of an Asian character means the viewer knows that they are going to be murdered along the way. A fake Moto at the beginning of Mr. Moto’s Last Warning is killed almost instantly as a way to convince the bad guys that Moto is out of the way. There are almost no examples in the series of European or American characters being treated so badly unless they are clearly the heavies in the films.
Another way the films ultimately fall short of the later standard set by the Bonds as international action adventures is the way in which Moto is not allowed to have a significant libido. He does have girlfriends a few times during the series but they are always Asian. Each film has a young American ingénue but they always end up with the dull, usually wealthy Caucasian male who Moto helps during the stories. Henry Silva at least gets to flirt with European woman in The Return of Mr. Moto but that is as far as things go. By essentially castrating the lead and weighing him down with offensive Asian stereotypes, the series really limits its possibilities.
In spite of these concerns and the average quality of the films, they are still worthwhile for fans of classic Hollywood B films. Peter Lorre is a singular actor and manages to make Moto a compelling central character in spite of the racism. The dignity he brings to the role as an actor lifts the material out of the realm of exploitation. When the films dial up the action and international intrigue, they are nearly as good as James Bond films made in the 1930s might have been. They lack the budget and the high-quality production values that would later distinguish the Bond films but they have the same spirit. They are, in many ways, superior to the Chan films that were made alongside and I feel as though Moto is a better central character than Chan. Still, the short duration of the series and the lesser entries towards the end leave the sensation that opportunities were missed. The update attempt was pitiful, but I can imagine Moto returning as a modern spy disrupting trade conspiracies or international terrorism. A compelling Japanese actor, a decent budget, and a good director could probably work together to create a memorable thriller. The racist legacy of the original series probably will prevent this from ever happening, but the Mr. Moto series managed to be interesting even with all of the stereotypes. I can only imagine how good they might be without them.
Editor’s note: The eight official Peter Lorre adventures as Mr. Moto are available on DVD in two four-disc sets from 20th Century-Fox home video. Each restored movie is accompanied by a featurette or interview, and a restoration comparison. The final DVD also carries a second film: Henry Silva’s turn as the Oriental sleuth in 1965′s The Return of Mr. Moto. Silva’s recorded audio commentary accompanies that brief film. The 2 DVD sets retail for $50 apiece but can be found for half that amount through secondary sources. Each set also contains a nice little booklet that describes aspects of the series.
Kudos must be given to Fox for making these relics available in such attractive sets, especially after that studio refused for so long to distribute the equally controversial Charlie Chan films of the same era (I chastised Fox for this in the 2004 Filmbobbery, Volume 5, Issue 4). In recent years Fox has changed tacks and allowed films of both series to speak for themselves, and classic film fans should rejoice at their turnabout.