Starting in 1937, Peter Lorre starred in a series of eight films about the Japanese detective. In this set are the first, second, fourth and fifth in the franchise. WWII put an end, of course to a series with a Japanese hero played by a German-speaking actor. Whatever one might think of racist stereotypes (and it is best, in viewing such films, to try not to think of them at all), these are enormously entertaining programmers.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) introduces us to Ken…aro Moto, import/export businessman and detective on the side. Tracking a ring of smugglers, Moto travels from San Francisco to Shanghai, and along the way becomes acquainted with a playboy heir to a shipping fortune, who is more tangled in a dangerous web than he realizes. Lorre’s Moto is an instantly fascinating figure: unfailingly cool and polite, yet perfectly capable of sudden, lethal violence as the situation demands.
Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937) has Moto in the Orient once again, tracking down scrolls that will point the way to the treasure-filled tomb of Genghis Khan. A group of criminals is after the same scrolls. The action is primarily set in Peking, and it is remarkable how well director Norman Foster, here as in the other films, manages to create and convincing illusion of exoticism – one struggles to remember one is on a Hollywood backlot. This film also has Moto at his most menacing – there is no doubt he is one of the good guys, but his cold-blooded approach to killing sets him apart from most other screen detectives.
Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938) shifts the scene to the jungles of Cambodia. Despite the change of scenery, and the fusing of jungle thrills with mystery, this is the weakest entry in this collection. It’s still fun, but the romance between Lorre’s supporting players is crippled by the fact that the male character is so utterly unlikeable. That said, there are some fascinating references to colonialism here, and faint echoes of the world crisis to come.
Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938) takes us, thankfully, back to an urban setting, and the echoes of the previous film are out-and-out anxiety-inducing rumbles now. An undercover Moto escapes from Devil’s Island with a member of the League of Assassins, and Moto infiltrates the League in London. He must find the leader before a brilliant and pacifist engineer is killed for his secret steel formula.
All of the films clock in at barely more than an hour, and it is astonishing to note how much plot and incident are packed in to that running time. Talk about economy of storytelling.
Both mono and stereo soundtracks on all of the films, and the remixes are the usual deal for movies form this period. The rear speakers pump out sound indiscriminately, but not with enough volume to really interfere with the enjoyment of the film. The mono tracks are strong, and actually have a bit more power than the stereo. In any event, the tracks are clean, with only occasional gurgling and virtually zero static.
By and large the restorations are looking better than those on the recent Will Rogers set. The prints are in very nice shape, with almost no damage of any kind. Grain is minimal, the black-and-white tones are rich, and the images are pleasingly sharp. In other words, the films look about as good as they did the day they were released.
A small booklet accompanies the set and gives brief introduction to the series and each film. Each disc has a restoration comparison and trailers for the series, and a 20-minute featurette examining the career of one of the men involved with the series. So Think Fast has “The Dean of Hollywood – A Conversation with Harvey Parry” (the stunt man); Thank You has “Sol Wurtzel: The Forgotten Mogul” (the executive producer), Takes a Chance has “The Mysterious Mr. Lorre;” and Mysterious Mr. Moto offers “Directed by Norman Foster.” The Moto films are dealt with only briefly in each of these features.
Enormous, nostalgic fun. I can’t wait for Volume Two.
Special Features List
- “The Mysterious Mr. Lorre”
- “Directed by Norman Foster”
- “The Dean of Hollywood: A Conversation with Harvey Parry”
- “Sol Wurtzel: The Forgotten Mogul”
- Restoration Comparisons