“Mr. Moto is a very difficult fellow to kill.” — Mr. Moto
1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto, starring Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as a witty, karate-chopping Japanese man of mystery, introduces us to the budget films version of Charlie Chan. It seems that the specific nature of Mr. Moto changes as the series progresses, and while he is an adventuring spymaster later in the series, at least for this first film he is identified as an import-export businessman who, like Bulldog Drummond and Nick and Nora Charles, dabbles in detective work and sleuthing as a hobby. But while it’s fair to compare Chan and Moto, other than the detective work and the fact that a white actor is playing an Asian, Moto and Chan are pretty different, both in terms of character and the movies they inhabit.
For starters, the Moto films were b-movies while, at least at first, the Charlie Chan films were A-list. But that’s not to say that the Mr. Moto series is cheap or in any way shoddy. These are some of the best looking b-movies you’re likely to see, heads above the Poverty Row productions that came to define b-movies and, at the worst, just a hair shy of A-list production — thanks in large part to the ability of the series to recycle sets from more prominent movies, including the Charlie Chan movies. And while the Chan films were largely old school parlor mysteries, the Mr. Moto films are all about action. Moto is a master of judo, and he has no problem whipping it out every ten minutes or so for a fight scene, making these more action-adventure films than traditional mysteries.
For the first of the series, we meet Mr. Moto while he is on the trail of murderous smugglers, a trail that leads him from San Francisco to Hawaii aboard a luxury steamer, and finally to Shanghai, where he befriends a well-meaning young rich guy about to assume control of a business that may very well be the nexus point of the smuggling operation. Along the way, Peter Lorre’s stunt double will toss people around like a rag doll and romance a Chinese telephone operator who, despite being a Chinese woman living in China, speaks with the sassy, “So I says to Mabel” accent that I guess is inherent in all telephone switchboard operators regardless of their nationality and native language.
As with the Chan films, if you can get over some of the obvious racial missteps, Think Fast, Mr. Moto presents an exceptionally positive portrayal of Asians. They are certainly more progressive than people often give them credit for being. Moto is, first of all, the good guy. He’s always one step ahead, and he’s always the one who has to come to the rescue of the white folks and explain everything in the end. Lorre’s portrayal of Moto is very human. He neither strays into the water of bucktoothed “Ah so” caricature nor the stoic, robotic “inscrutable Asian” act. Instead, Moto is played like an actual member of the human race. Soft spoken and polite most of the time, but more than willing to be happy or angry.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto is pretty good cinema. The mystery that is central to the plot is, actually, hardly central to the plot. Half the time, you’ll forget there’s even a mystery to be solved. But it doesn’t matter, as simply going along with Moto for the ride is a lot of fun. I’m definitely looking forward to others in the series.
Release Date: 1937 | Country: United States | Starring: Peter Lorre, Virginia Field, Thomas Beck, Sig Ruman, Murray Kinnell, John Rogers, Lotus Long, George Cooper, J. Carrol Naish, Frederick Vogeding | Screenplay: Howard Ellis Smith, Norman Foster | Director: Norman Foster | Cinematography: Harry Jackson | Music: R.H. Bassett, Samuel Kaylin | Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel | Availability: DVD (Amazon)