Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting Practice in Chasing the Wrong Man

Often circumstances will force me to watch a movie. For instance, I was at my parents' home recently, flipping channels on their TV. I run across some movie channel that I didn't even know about and they're showing Mr. Moto in Danger Island (1939).

Well, I didn't want to start watching after the movie had already started, but when I went back home that afternoon, I blithely ignored the fact that I was obligated to prepare a Bible study I'd be teaching in just a few days so that I could pop in my DVD of that movie and watch it properly from start to finish. There was no choice. I had to do this.

Watching one of the eight Mr. Moto films is always a good thing, because all of them are entertaining. Danger Island isn't the best of them, but it's still got a lot going to it. 

In this one, Moto is initially aboard a ship heading for San Juan. He's been hired to take over an investigation of diamond smuggling--the first investigator having ended up with a knife in his back.

That's not a sign that things will go easily for Moto. And, sure enough, things get dangerous pretty darn quick. Mr. Moto suffers an appendicitis attack (or does he?) as the ship comes into port and he's taken away in an ambulance that had been hijacked by thugs.

Moto thinks and fights his way out of that situation and ends up at the governor's mansion--which is pretty much overflowing with suspects: there's at least four different guys who might turn out to be the head of the smuggling ring.

There's another attempt on Moto's life. When this fails, he's falsely identified as a criminal who has stolen the real Moto's identity and forced to go on the run. But is he in trouble, or is he yet again running a con on the bad guys? Moto, in fact, runs at least three distinct and separate cons before the movie ends. 

It's a solid and fast-moving story, filmed in crisp, beautiful black-and-white. The script (based on a novel titled Murder in Trinidad) had originally been intended as a Charlie Chan movie, making this the second time a Chan film had morphed into a Moto film. The first of these was Mr. Moto's Gamble, which was much more of a Chan film in its plot and overall style--and even included Keye Luke as Lee Chan helping Moto solve a murder.

Danger Island, though, contains the sort of action that one expects from a Moto movie. It makes me curious about how much the script changed when it was changed when it switched protagonists. Charlie Chan might fake appendicitis to fool the bad guys, but he certainly wouldn't be tossing them around with judo throws later on. I also have a hard time picturing Chan on the run from the police. Perhaps the original script had Lee Chan doing some of the action stuff; or perhaps Danger Island got a much more thorough re-write than did Mr. Moto's Gamble. It is interesting to note that Moto picks up a sidekick (a wrestler he befriends named Twister McGurk) who takes on the same duel role of comic relief and assistant that a Chan son often fulfilled. 

Oh, there's one other supporting character that's worth mentioning. Richard Lane plays a government official named Commissioner Gordon, who is tasked with the job of catching Moto when the detective goes on the run. First, of course, there's his name and title. Every time he's referred to as Commissioner Gordon, I expect him to activate the Bat Signal. This is especially ironic considering Mr. Moto is running a series of Batman-level gambits to break up the smuggling ring. 

Also, in 1941, Richard Lane would take the role of Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies. So here he is chasing Mr. Moto, who is actually innocent of any crime. Soon, he'd spend 14 movies chasing reformed thief Boston Blackie for various murders, only to have Blackie inevitably catch the real killer and prove to be innocent. I guess it's a good thing he got in a little practice at this with Moto before he began his Boston Blackie Marathon. 

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