Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mysterious Mr Moto (1938)

Mysterious Mr Moto was the fifth of the eight 20th Century-Fox Mr Moto films starring Peter Lorre as the great Japanese detective. The movies were inspired by the novels of John P. Marquand. Mysterious Mr Moto was released late in 1938.

When we first see Mr Moto he is escaping from the notorious French prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, accompanied by the smooth but sinister Paul Brissac (Leon Ames). Has Mr Moto turned to crime? Certainly not. He is working undercover for Interpol (referred to in the movie as the International Police) masquerading as a Japanese murderer. After their escape Brissac heads to London where he has important business to attend to. Moto manages to persuade him that what he will really need in London is a reliable Japanese houseboy who happens to be something of a genius at mixing cocktails.

Moto is on the trail of the infamous League of Assassins, a kind of international version of Murder Incorporated but with vague and unspecified political affiliations. The next target of the League of Assassins is to be Czech steel magnate Anton Darvak (Henry Wilcoxon). Darvak’s firm has invented a new process that is of extreme interest to various armaments manufacturers but Darvak is a pacifist who refuses to allow the process to be used for military purposes. The League intends to force his hands. Darvak has been threatened with death but being an idealistic pacifist he is unwilling to take such threats seriously.

Mr Moto obviously has to protect Darvak but it’s rather difficult to protect a man who stubbornly refuses to admit he needs protection. Moto also has to uncover the man behind the League of Assassins and smash their organisation. He can rely on one trusted associate, the beautiful Eurasian Lotus Long who is also an undercover International Police agent. It is a race against time - Darvak is scheduled to be assassinated at 3 pm on the following day.

In the books Moto is a Japanese master spy. In the films he is essentially a police detective although clearly he specialises in cases that involve international intrigue and counter-espionage. The Mr Moto of the films is also more of an action hero, being a formidable judo expert (something that is mentioned in passing in the novels). In the books it is clear that Moto comes from a noble (and presumably samurai) family. This is given less emphasis in the movies although there are hints of it. In both the books and the movies Moto is obviously a highly educated man.

One of the amusing things about this movie is the way Mr Moto usually appears to be a mild-mannered harmless little man who speaks excruciating broken English but every now and then (such as the times when he consults with Sir Charles Murchison at Scotland Yard) he lets the mask slip and we see the real Moto - a very shrewd and dangerous man who speaks excellent English. Appearing to be a rather foolish and insignificant little doormat is an essential part of Moto’s method.

The Moto series gave Peter Lorre a rare chance not just to play a hero but to play a genuine action hero. He clearly relished this opportunity and he does a marvellous job. Lorre’s slight build and air of physical lassitude combine to make the action sequences a kind of in-joke - by now the viewers who have watched the four previous films know that anyone who dismisses Moto as a joke is likely to have an unpleasant surprise when he calmly and methodically takes them apart with his judo. Lorre plays Moto as a quiet gentle but very intelligent man who is capable of killing very efficiently should the need arise.

Unlike the other celebrated B-movie series with an Asian hero, Charlie Chan, the Mr Moto movies belong more to the thriller genre. Moto is closer to being a secret agent than a mere detective. Most of the movies deal at least indirectly with international affairs and conspiracies. Moto is more of a precursor to the heroes of later spy adventure movies (and like James Bond he has a taste for elegant and sophisticated living).

Norman Foster directed and co-wrote most of Mr Moto films as well as directing several of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies. He had the ability to bring movies in on time and on budget which is course the prime requirement for a director of B-movies but Foster always added a bit of extra style and panache. His shot compositions are always very sound. His B-pictures were definitely a cut above the routine standard of such productions. Mysterious Mr Moto is also pleasingly fast-paced.

Mysterious Mr Moto is included in the first of the two Mr Moto boxed sets. Fox have done their usual fine job with the film getting a lovely transfer. The one significant extra is a rather interesting brief documentary on the intriguing career of director Norman Foster from Mr Moto to Disney via Mexico and Orson Welles.

I should add in passing that Marquand’s Mr Moto novels such as Your Turn, Mr Moto are not only very much worth reading but also provide an interesting contrast with Mr Moto being a rather different character compared to his film incarnations.

Mysterious Mr Moto is splendid entertainment. Moto himself is a fascinating blend of the cerebral master detective and the secret agent action hero. Lorre is as compulsively watchable as always. Highly recommended.

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