Friday, December 21, 2007
B-Movie Detectives: Part 6
What makes Mr. Moto such an interesting character is the curious combination of his unfailing politeness towards everyone he meets and his willingness to act with ruthless violence when he decides such violence is necessary.
Wonderfully played by Peter Lorre in 8 movies, Moto is a just plain cool guy. He's good at deductive reasoning, he's an expert in art, a master of disguise, and a skilled hand-t0-hand combatant. In the first film, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, he turns out to be the owner of a Japanese import company, dabbling in detective work both as a hobby and to look after his own business interests.
In later films, he's working for a vaguely-defined organization called the "International Police," often going undercover to snag international crooks or spies. As mentioned above, one of the things that make him stand out was his inate ruthlessness. In many of the movies, Moto is called upon to use deadly force. On at least two occasions, he sets things up to get one bad guy to murder another. He's a lot more willing to pull a gun and actually use it than Charlie Chan ever was.
Then there's Mr. Moto's Gamble. This was originally meant to be a Charlie Chan film, but when Warner Oland got too sick to continue filming, it was quickly re-written to be a Moto film (both series were produced by 20th Century Fox). It's a nice little whodunit: Moto is teaching a criminology course in New York and is asked to help investigate a murder at a boxing ring. Helping him out is Lee Chan, Charlie's number one Son, who was one of Moto's students. Lee is played with humor and charm by Keye Luke, who also played the role in the Chan films. The niftiest thing about the movie is establishing that Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto both exist in the same universe.
The Hungarian-born Lorre didn't use heavy make-up to play Moto. Instead, he just slicked his hair back and donned glasses. Lorre, one of the best character actors of his time, made this work perfectly. His stunt double, Johnny Kascier, helped stage energetic, fun fight scenes.
With strong stories that range from murder mysteries to espionage thrillers, the Moto series is one of most entertaining examples of the genre. They rank up there with the best Chan films, but have their own unique feel to them. The two series complement each other nicely--it's really not surprising that the two men do indeed exist in the same universe.