May Links

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Celebrating the great, defending the cheesy and a display of some darned impressive detective work are all hallmarks of this collection of smart and entertaining links to some of the best movie blogs posted in May:

Courtesy of “thehorrorchick,” Roger Corman reminisces about working with Vincent Price on their wildly successful Edgar Allan Poe films on the genre-loving DreadCentral.com site.

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May 31, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Think Fast, Mr. Moto

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In the movies, cheap no one has ever personified The Outsider better than Peter Lorre. His baby-faced murderer (and perhaps worse) of children in M, cure his flamboyantly insane surgeon in Mad Love, his alternately melancholy and ruthless burn victim forced into a life of crime in The Face Behind the Mask, his sinister effeminate soldier of fortune in The Maltese Falcon … It’s hard to name another actor of his day (or since) capable of equaling those performances in such a variety of outre roles; it’s utterly impossible to name anyone who could have done them better.

Since his death in 1964, Lorre’s reputation as an actor has steadily grown among critics and film lovers, far beyond the respect given him during his lifetime. Among his contemporaries, many directors and fellow actors certainly recognized Lorre’s versatility and very real if peculiar genius, but in the eyes of a surprising number of reviewers and moviegoers of the day, he was pigeonholed as a creepy little man with big eyes and a funny voice.

Small wonder that when Peter Lorre got the chance to play a bona fide hero – and an action hero, at that – it was as the leading man in 20th Century Fox’s “Mr. Moto” series.

The hero of five novels written by John P. Marquand from 1935-41, Moto on the printed page was very much the outsider, a figure more often glimpsed at the edge of the reader’s peripheral vision than anywhere near center stage. The apparent heroes of the books were assorted strapping Yanks and other square-jawed Westerners who found themselves embroiled in international skullduggery while traveling in China, Hawaii and other Pacific locales. Moto, when he eventually turned up, at first seemed to be light comic relief – a slight, soft-spoken and seemingly eccentric Japanese man who wound in and out of the story until it finally dawned on the reader that this apparent supporting character had been, in fact, the actual hero of the adventure all along.

Beneath his unprepossessing and at times oddball exterior, I.A. Moto – which was almost certainly not his real name – was actually an undercover agent of the Japanese government. In the emperor’s name he had a license to kill, lie and maim…and he was frighteningly good at all of it.

Marquand dreamed up Moto in response to The Saturday Evening Post’s call for stories to fill the vacancy left by the recent death of “Charlie Chan” creator Earl Derr Biggers. Chan, of course, had been a major movie property at Fox since 1931, and it was a measure of Marquand’s achievement that the studio considered Moto to be worthy of a companion series. Less than two years after the first novel appeared in the Post, cameras began to turn on Think Fast, Mr. Moto.

For a series obviously designed to ride the coattails of Charlie Chan, the early Moto films seemed to bend over backwards to feel as un-Chanlike as possible. Director and co-writer Norman Foster pared the whodunit aspects of the stories to the bone as much as possible in order to concentrate on atmosphere and action – both of which the Motos had plenty.

Many of the Chans were set in similar “exotic” locales, but those settings were rarely more than backdrops against which the established mystery formula played itself out. The Motos, though shot on the same backlot with a similar B budget, invested obvious effort in making their settings more real, more integral to the stories. Much of that was due to the influence of Foster, who had traveled in the East and rebelled at falling back on easy clichés. The final product wasn’t documentary reality, of course, but rather a blend of authentic atmosphere with the full-blooded and heavily nuanced “reality” of pulp fiction.

Shifting from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Honolulu to Shanghai, Think Fast, Mr. Moto lays the atmosphere on thick as Moto pursues a diamond smuggling gang. Following Marquand’s lead, this initial adventure keeps Moto offscreen a fair amount of time while following young American shipping heir Hitchings (Thomas Beck) as he becomes drawn unwittingly into the smuggling plot. Even so, Lorre dominates the film and turns every second of what seems at first to be a curiously reduced screen time into a powerful introduction to his character.

In terms of acquainting us with Kentaro Moto (not, inexplicably, the I.A. Moto of the books), the script cleverly has it both ways. Yes, Lorre spends much of his time putting on the amusing self-effacing front of the character in the novels, but those scenes all follow the film’s slam-bang introduction in which a heavily disguised Moto discovers a murder, trashes a curio shop and roughs up a police detective in order to make his getaway. While allowing the audience to enjoy his act as the funny little foreigner, the movie also takes them into its confidence: we may be charmed by his façade, but we also know that this is as much a disguise as the less subtle one in which he opened the film. There’s a devious and violent personality lurking beneath the surface.

In fact, not even the audience knows just how devious he is. In the closing minutes of the film, after all the trickery and bloodletting have resulted in the destruction of the smuggling gang, the amazed Hitchings demands that Moto tell him who he really is. Moto produces a business card revealing his identity as managing director of the Dai Nippon Trading Company, forced into action by the damage the smugglers were doing to his business. “Then you’re not a detective, after all,” says Hitchings. “Oh,” smiles Moto, “only as a hobby.” As audiences would discover during the subsequent entries in the series, even this self-effacing revelation is just another convenient lie.

Moto’s violence is one of the elements that sets him farthest apart from Charlie Chan. By making him a master of ju-jitsu, the films found a way to allow the diminutive Lorre (via stuntman Harvey Parry) to mix it up convincingly with the biggest of bruisers, and those physical confrontations were staged with excitement and bone-crunching brutality. Nor was Moto shy about spilling blood if that’s what the job required. During the 70-minute running time of his first screen appearance, he plugs knife-throwing J. Carroll Naish on two separate occasions (the second time for keeps), arranges for one villain to murder another, and – in a moment that must have stunned moviegoers used to the avuncular and cerebral Chan method of crimefighting – pummels a crooked ship’s steward senseless and then hurls the dazed man overboard to drown in the ocean.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto is as much a showcase for Peter Lorre as it is an introduction to his character. In the impressively underplayed dialogue leading up to his execution of the steward, Moto is allowed to drop his mask and shift from sinister to downright frightening, reminding us of the qualities that made Lorre a star to begin with. Whatever the tenor of any scene, in fact, Lorre’s remarkable underplaying is evident throughout, as is a comedic flair that gives the viewer permission to embrace him even when we know that his gentle charm is just an act. Lorre played the part with very little makeup – hair and skin slightly darkened, and slanted eyebrows (but no slanting of the famous eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses; the protuberant teeth were his own, fated to be replaced by dentures in a few years) – and his vocal delivery was more of a delicate flavor than an accent. B movie or not, the film is a genuine star vehicle for a highly accomplished actor.

In the role of a Japanese man in 1937, Lorre was inevitably still playing The Other, but to more recent eyes much of the cinematic Moto is almost shockingly modern and, in our greater acceptance of the global village, considerably less exotic. For all of Norman Foster’s intelligent and energetic direction, the films themselves remain unmistakably products of the late ‘30s…but take a close look at Moto himself – his violence, his relish for dirty tricks and subterfuge, even the scene in which he sits down to a gaming table in a white dinner jacket and proceeds to out-shark the card shark – and you find yourself looking at the direct ancestor of a very familiar hero, committed to film 16 years before Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale saw print. Unlikely as it may seem at first glance, Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto was the hero of the future.

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May 28, 2011 · Posted in Legends