Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)
Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first of the nine Mr Moto movies made by 20th Century-Fox in the late 30s featuring Peter Lorre as the great Japanese detective. They were B-movies, but well-made B-movies.
While the Mr Moto of the first of John P. Marquand’s novels is a spymaster in the film he becomes an amateur detective. In the movie he also acquires martial arts skills. Lorre was attracted to the role because he had grown tired of playing psychopathic crazies and liked the idea playing a hero for a change. And not just a hero, but an action hero!
Mr Moto is on the trail of smugglers, a trail that leads him from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Shanghai. The case involves murder as well as smuggling. Mr Moto, a master of disguise, has picked up some useful leads by going undercover as a disreputable diamond smuggler. On board the ship he befriends Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck) a young American who is the son of the steamship line.
Hitchings has fallen for Gloria Danton, a glamorous young woman who has a secret. She is a White Russian, a woman without a country, travelling on a forged passport. The plot gathers steam when the travellers arrive in Shanghai and Mr Moto starts to close in on the leaders of the smuggling ring.
While it’s regarded as politically incorrect these days to have European actors playing Asian characters Think Fast, Mr. Moto cannot be accused of racist stereotyping. Mr Moto is no inscrutable Oriental. He is a brave, honourable and capable man who uses a mixture of intelligence and ju-jitsu to bring bad guys to justice but he carries a gun as well and he’s quite willing to use it. There are no two-dimensional Oriental villains in this movie and the Chinese police are portrayed as being efficient and honest.
Shanghai in the 20s and early 30s was one of the world’s most fascinating cities - dangerous, sophisticated and decadent - and is an ideal setting for a crime story with a hint of international intrigue. You could find any kind of entertainment in Shanghai and the movies makes the most of this with night-club and gambling club scenes and a generally exotic atmosphere, created quite effectively for a B-movie made entirely in Hollywood.
Lorre eventually grew bored with the Mr Moto movies, inevitable considering that he made no less than nine of them, but he clearly liked the character and he makes Mr Moto one of the most interesting of movie detectives. The support cast is quite adequate. Within the constraints of the limited budget director Norman Foster handles his task very professionally and doesn’t allow the pace to flag.
This is a very solid crime B-movie and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
The Fox DVD (included in the first of the Mr Moto boxed sets) is a superb transfer and includes an interview with stuntman Harvey Perry who was Peter Lorre’s stunt double and has very fond memories of working with Lorre.