Re-examining the case files of Peter Lorre’s vintage Mr Moto mysteries
When it comes to iconic sleuths of popular fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes rules supreme – witness the success of the BBC’s contemporary take and Guy Ritchie’s buddy movies. It was the same back in the 1930s and 1940s when Basil Rathbone first donned the deerstalker. But there were also some other well-known gumshoes muscling in on Sherlock’s territory at the time, including The Saint and The Falcon, and two oriental detectives, Charlie Chan and Mr Moto.
The character of Mr Moto originally appeared in six novels between 1935 and 1957 created by John P Marquand. Impeccably-dressed, with an penchant for the martial arts, wearing disguises and speaking numerous languages, the diminutive Japanese American Interpol agent was like an Asian James Bond – albeit minus 007’s sex drive. Following the success of the Charlie Chan movies starring Warner Oland, 20th Century Fox brought Mr Moto to life in the shape of Peter Lorre, who had joined the studio in 1936. While the idea of a Hungarian sporting a Viennese accent playing a Japanese character seemed odd at first, Lorre threw himself into the part (with very little make-up – even the teeth are his own) and it worked.
The success of the first film, Think Fast, Mr Moto, ensured the franchise. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was that Lorre was still undergoing drug rehabilitation, so all the scenes in which you see Moto showing off his expert martial art skills were in fact done by stuntman supremo, Harvey Parry (he doubled for Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart – even Vincent Price). But with Parry’s physical feats and Lorre’s acting skills combined, Mr Moto ran for the next eight films, and only came to an end when Lorre (upset he wasn’t getting any comic gigs at Fox) got released from his studio contract.
The entire Mr Moto series is available on DVD in the UK through Odeon Entertainment in one collection or as stand alone DVDs (click on title below), and two of the films, Think Fast Mr Moto and Mr Moto Takes a Vacation play as part of the BFI Peter Lorre season today in London.
Think Fast, Mr Moto (1937) On a ship bound for Shanghai, Moto befriends the ship owner’s playboy son in order to unmask diamond smugglers. Lorre only accepted the role of Mr Moto because it gave him the chance to play a hero. The film was such a success that the studio ordered five more films in the series, while pledging to keep the production values top knotch. Virginia Field, who’d also appear regularly in the series, later turned up in the British sci-fi The Earth Dies Screaming (1965).
Thank You, Mr Moto (1937) Moto is tasked to stop treasure hunters from uncovering the tomb of Ghengis Khan in China. This story was penned by Moto creator John P Marquand himself and John Carradine turns up as a dealer in antiquities.
Mr Moto’s Gamble (1938). Warner Oland was scheduled to star in Charlie Chan at the Fights. When he fell ill, and later died, the studio turned it into the third Mr Moto film, set in the world of boxing. Chan’s Number One son Keye Luke co-stars. Watch out for Lynn Bari (she starred opposite Vincent Price in Shock) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Lon Chaney Jr as an Irish heavy.
Mr Moto Takes a Chance (1938). Released two months after Gamble, the mystery melodrama finds Moto at the ruins of Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, where he discovers a plot to wipe out every foreigner from all of Asia. Despite the fake sets and questionable antics of an American film crew caught up in the drama, its a hoot.
The Mysterious Mr Moto (1938) After orchestrating a daring escape from Devil’s Island, Moto flees with his cellmate to London in order to infiltrate the League of Assassins and discover who is the person in charge. This story was written by thriller writer Philip MacDonald, who penned the 1927 WWI novel Patrol, later filmed as The Lost Patrol in 1929 and 1934 (with Boris Karloff), was an uncredited writer on 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, and did the novelisation for 1956’s Forbidden Planet (as WJ Stuart). He also wrote the Last Warning and Vacation Moto adventures.
Mr Moto’s Last Warning (1939) This is regarded as the best of the Mr Moto stories in which a band of foreign saboteurs hatch a devastating plot to blow up the French fleet in Port Said, Egypt and blame it on the British. This one’s got a cracking cast including George Sanders, Ricardo Cortez and Robert Coote (who’d play a similar ditzy character in 1973’s Theatre of Blood), as well as John Carradine once again.
Mr Moto in Danger Island (1939) Released three months after Mr Moto’s Last Warning, this remake of the 1934 feature Murder in Trinidad finds Mr Moto trapping a killer and diamond smuggler in Puerto Rico. Real-life philanthropist Jean Hersholt, who won two Oscars for humanitarian causes guest stars.
Mr Moto Takes a Vacation (1939) In his last film as the orienta sleuth, guards a priceless crown destined for San Francisco. The villain of the piece is a master of disguises. Could it be Lionel Atwill, best known for his macabre roles in Mystery in the Wax Museum (1933) and Universal’s Frankenstein films in the 1940s?
* For more about Peter Lorre, check out this informative blog on the iconic actor: http://peterlorrenews.blogspot.co.uk/
* If you are a fan of the film franchise, check out The Complete Mr Moto Film Phile: A Casebook by Howard M Berlin; and The Case Files of the Oriental Sleuths: Charlie Chan, Mr Moto & Mr Wong by David Rothel.
Here’s the trailer for Mr Moto’s Gamble.
Posted on September 7, 2014, in BFI Player, Cult classic, Cult Film News, Hollywood Classic, Might See, Might-See, Thriller and tagged 20th Century Fox, BFI Player, BFI Southbank, Cinema sleuths, Cult classic, Hollywood classic, John P Marquand, Might See, Mr Moto, Mr Moto in Danger Island, Mr Moto Takes a Chance, Mr Moto Takes a Vacation, Mr Moto's Gamble, Mr Moto's Last Warning, Odeon Entertainment, Peter Lorre, Thank You, The Mysterious Mr Moto, Think Fast, Thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.