Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) was the first of 20th Century-Fox's movie series based on the wily Japanese sleuth. The success of the Charlie Chan series inspired Hollywoods typical practice of imitation. The studio turned for inspiration to a series of novels written by Pulitzer Prizewinner John P. Marquand, featuring a Japanese secret agent named I. A. Moto. I twice tried to read Mr. Moto is So Sorry (1938) but got no further than a dozen pages or so either time before giving it up as too slow and boring to read. I did read the final Mr. Moto novel Stopover Tokyo (1957) and found it quite entertaining.
Hungarian-born German actor Peter Lorre portrayed the enigmatic and self-effacing sleuth in an eight-film series. Lorre was amazingly effective in portraying a Japanese character with almost no make-up. Somehow, he transformed himself from European to Japanese by merely putting on a pair of steel-rimmed glasses much like Superman disguising himself as a mild mannered reporter behind a pair of glasses or Bogart's similar transformation in The Big Sleep (1946). Prior to this, Lorre had been known for his performances as villains, beginning with the Fritz Lang classic M (1931), in which he starred as a serial killer of children, hunted by both the police and the underworld. He had also been brilliant as the murderous, love-crazed surgeon in Mad Love (1935). His association with these previous roles doubtless contributed to the ambiguity of Mr. Moto, who often seemed as much like a villain as a hero until well into the movie.
All eight of the films were produced in less than three years time, from 1937 thru 1939. It probably could have gone longer but worsening relations with Japan convinced the strongly anti-fascist Lorre that he should not make any more films in the series.
In Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937), the star initially seems to be a crook, involved with a gang of international smugglers. The adventure takes Mr. Moto and his allies -- a Russian expatriate and the son of an American steamship line owner -- from San Francisco to Shanghai. At the inevitable showdown with the head of the smugglers (played by Sig Rumann), Mr. Moto reveals himself to have been a good guy all along. While not a great film, it certainly was entertaining and the unique character of Mr. Moto proved popular with both audiences and the critics.
The second film, Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937), is considered by many to be the best in the series. This time Mr. Moto comes to the aid of the last remaining members of an ancient Chinese clan. They have in their possession six of seven scrolls scrolls that, when put together, will reveal the secret hiding place of the legendary lost treasure of Genghis Khan. Mr. Moto has acquired the seventh scroll and travels to Peking in order to return it to the family. Villains torture and kill the Chinese royals, then lure Moto to a rendezvous on a Chinese river junk. Mr. Moto succeeds in thwarting the villains with the aid of a pretty girl. In the end, rather than risk the scrolls falling into the wrong hands (thus disgracing the Chinese family who died to protect their secret), Mr. Moto burns all seven parchments.
Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938) is a personal favorite of mine. This movie was originally scripted as a Charlie Chan film (to be titled "Charlie Chan at Ringside") but when Warner Oland became ill early in the filming, Lorre's Mr. Moto was brought in as a substitute. Consequently, Chans "number one son" Lee Chan (played by Keye Luke) assists Mr. Moto. The story concerns a boxer who dies in the midst of the big fight. It turns out that he died of poison, rather than of injuries received in the ring. An excellent cast of suspects is on hand and Mr. Moto uncovers a satisfyingly devious solution to the mystery. It does, however, lack many of the usual elements of the rest of the series -- Mr. Moto is unambiguously a good guy in this film, he only uses judo in a comic scene near the beginning of the film, and he doesn't wear any disguises.
Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938) concerns a beautiful young aviatrix who is actually a British secret agent who crash-lands in a remote Indochinese jungle province ruled by a comic potentate and his sinister high priest. Mr. Moto just happens to be in the vicinity -- with an archeological expedition, for some reason -- as are two American newsreel cameramen. The pilot's secret mission is to uncover gun smuggling being carried out in support of a rebellion against White rule. Mr. Moto comes to the rescue -- posing as a Lama from the high Himalayas, freeing the aviatrix and the newsmen, vanquishing the villains, and destroying a secret munition site. By the standards of its time, this was a solid action film and it still stands up as entertainment -- if not as great cinema.
Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938) repeats the gimmick of Mr. Moto initially appearing to be one of the bad guys. By this stage that only really worked for viewers new to the series. Nevertheless, he makes his escape from the infamous French penal colony of Devil's Island in the company of a fellow prisoner who is part of a gang of assassins for hire. This serves to allow him to infiltrate the gang where other secret agents before him have failed. In the film's climax at an exhibition of modern art, Mr. Moto aranges for the mysterious leader of the assassins to fall victim to his own deadly plot. He is, of course, the least likely suspect as conventionally required. This is one of the best in the series, athough not as good as Thank You, Mr. Moto.
Mr. Motos Last Warning (1939) was the sixth in the series and until recently was the only film in the series available on DVD or videocassette. The story concerns a plot by saboteurs to blow up the French fleet in the Suez Canal. It has an excellent setting and good supporting performances by George Sanders and John Carradine. Carradine's character suffers a most unpleasant fate when he is discovered to be a British agent.
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939). is the seventh (or eighth, according to some references) entry in the series. When American archeologist Howard Stevens (John King) recovers the ancient crown of the Queen of Sheba, the priceless artifact is shipped to the Fremont Museum in San Francisco. Mr. Moto is present at the discovery in one of his disguises and then ostensibly on vacation, follows the crown to San Francisco to guard it from a notorious master thief that everyone assumes is dead. Using a variety of disguises, the very-much-alive thief succeeds in pilfering the crown-only to discover that Moto has remained three steps ahead of him throughout the film. This is my personal choice for best in the series.
Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1939) was a remake of Murder in Trinidad (1934) -- an outstanding film in which Nigel Bruce played a character whose only similarity to Mr. Moto was his brilliance as a detective. Mr. Moto is after a smuggling ring operating out of Puerto Rico the "danger island" of the title, standing in for Trinidad. The gang relies on crocodiles and quicksand to protect their base of operations from the authorities. Mr. Moto finds his way into their stronghold and his intellectual powers prove more than a match for lead gangster "Twister" McGurk. The series ended on a high note with this solid mystery/action programmer.
When Marquand's postwar Mr. Moto novel Stopover Tokyo (1957) was filmed the same year that it was published, the character of Mr. Moto had disappeared from the story. This is rather ironic since Mr. Moto played a more active role in this, than in the other novels. Typically, he was a sort of eminence grise, catalyzing events but taking only infrequent part in the action, which was usually carried by a young American male and a beautiful woman -- a model still followed in part in this novel. The movie was an entertaining film but was less memorable than the Mr. Moto series. Stopover Tokyo was the only Mr. Moto novel that I actually read from cover to cover and it was quite good and distinctly better than the film.
Inspired by the success of the James Bond films in the Sixties, Twentieth Century-Fox revived the character, as more of a romantic spy, in The Return of Mr. Moto (1965). Moto was again played by a non-oriental, with Hispanic actor Henry Silva cast in the role. I have only recently seen the film for the first time. It was a reasonably entertaining film but nothing special. Silva, who is a very fine actor, gave a good performance as a character who had none of the ambiguity or class of Lorre's Moto. As with Lorre, there was little attempt to make Silva look Japanese. If characters in the story hadn't kept referring to him as "the oriental" you might have concluded that Moto was a Spanish or Italian name. There is only slightly more attempt at making him look oriental when Mr. Moto disguises himself as a Japanese diplomat, in the scripts one nod to the usual elements of the classic Moto movies. This Mr. Moto also is an expert knife thrower rather than a judo expert.
All of the Mr. Moto movies (Stopover Tokyo not included) are now available on DVD in the two part Mr. Moto Collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.