Saturday, November 11, 2006

The DVD Beat: Think Fast, Mr. Moto

In the 1930's 20th Century Fox was having huge success with their series of "Charlie Chan" films; they were cheap to make, and had a lot of written source material to take from. They went out looking for a new series of detective films to release and ran across a series of novels by John P. Marquand about a Japanese spy who was rather ruthless and very good at his job. In translating the novels to film, they decided to not use the spy angle, and make Mr. Moto someone who did odd jobs for the International Police Force, and was also an exporter of various products. Why is anyone's guess, but it worked out pretty well for them in the long run. They ended up making eight "Mr. Moto" films, and the first four have been released in a pretty nice box set.

These types of films were doing well for a lot of companies around this time. Along with Charlie Chan, we also got the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and the most popular of all is probably "The Thin Man" series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. The "Mr. Moto" films haven't really stayed in the minds of most people like these other three series have, so kudos to Fox for brining these back into the spotlight for a lot of us to discover for the first time.

"Think Fast, Mr. Moto" is the first in the series. Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) puts himself aboard a cruise line headed to Shangai where he thinks some pretty nasty folk are involved in some diamond smuggling. He befriends the cruise line's owner's son (Thomas Beck) who he believes might be a target of the smugglers. The film (all 1 hour and 10 minutes of it) spends about half the time on the ship and half in Shangai where the action concludes. Mr. Moto is quite different than the Holmes and Chan's of the world in the fact that he's not really a detective. He's obviously very knowledgable and has a sharp, deductive mind, but whereas in most of these types of films our hero is spending a lot of time searching for clues, Mr. Moto mostly just uses his Judo to full affect to get his information. If I had to compare this to another series of films, I think it would fall in line more with James Bond than Nick and Nora Charles.

Enough can't be said about Peter Lorre; on one of the documentaries on this disc he is referred to as the "Forgotten Star," and that is very true. He was the Christopher Walken of the day. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were the stars, and Lorre was occassionally invited to the party. After making "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon" with Lorre, Bogart is pretty famous for stating that he didn't want to work with Lorre anymore because he stole every damn scene he was in with him, and that's the truth. Here, thankfully, Lorre gets to be the star, and he shines as bright as any of the day. He is the reason, and really the sole reason these films work at all. Granted, you're not going to buy for a second that he is Japanese, but it's kind of like Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon; he might not have looked the part, but he acted the hell out of it, and became the part nonetheless.

Outside of Lorre there really isn't a whole lot going on in the film, however. All of the other actors are a ragtag group of "work-for-hires," and they do a serviceable job, but they had to act against Lorre, so I would say they hold their own. The low budget is noticeable considering that every street in Shangai looks exactly the same, and the extras amount to probably twenty or thirty people that they just kept dressing up different. You'll recognize some of the ship passengers as different characters once they reach Shangai. This sounds like a knock on the film, but it really isn't; I enjoyed the hell out of it. Lorre makes it work, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The other detective series at the time, especially the classic "Thin Man" films, are quite a bit better than these, but it's still a fun franchise to watch, and thank god it's finally getting a good release on DVD.

I wish they had done a little more with the extras. I can't speak for the other discs since this is the only film I've watched so far. There is an interesting interview with the late, great stunt man, Harvey Perry who was referred to as "The Dean of Hollywood Stunt Men," it's not a job you get to see profiled that often, so it's pretty interesting. The other discs have docs on Lorre and director Norman Foster. After that it's pretty basic stuff like trailers, and there is a demo reel surrounding the film transfer, which I thought could have been a little more detailed.

I highly reccomend the film for film buffs and lovers of mysteries and thrillers. And it's only an hour and ten minutes (Which actually ends up being the perfect length), so you're really not going to waste much of your time if you don't like it. I'm looking forward to watching the further adventures of Mr. Moto, and getting to enjoy Lorre in what few of the starring roles he ever had. This type of film is the reason I love DVD so much; the studios have done a great job of getting to us some films that we would never see otherwise, and most of the time they are well worth the viewing. This one definately was. Enjoy.


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