August Links

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August bloggers closed out the summer with writing on film that covered the waterfront, from indie action flicks to classic stars to coverage of yet another rediscovered piece of lost cinema.

As part of a weeklong celebration of the inimitable Joan Blondell, blogger “morlockjeff” sang the praises of the teamwork of Blondell and James Cagney, centering on their co-starring turns in the 1931 Blonde Crazy. Click here, here, here, here, here and here for other engaging Morlock tributes to Blondell.

NPR blogger Andrew Lapin opined on the short snarky life of the independent cinema’s take on those new staples of the blockbuster, costumed superheroes.

Amazing news for Alfred Hitchcock fans: The discovery of a 30-minute fragment of the first film the British director worked on, the 1923 The White Shadow, included in the same New Zealand archive that yielded last year’s rediscovered John Ford film UPSTREAM.

Not August, but worth a look: Last year, bloggers John Scoleri and Peter Enfantino devoted months of their lives reviewing and commenting on one episode a day of the classic Boris Karloff suspense-and-horror series Thriller.

Video Watchblog’s Tim Lucas remembers the late Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, whose work brought fresh blood to horror films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Slip into those streetsmart wedgies and glom onto these savvy links.

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August 29, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Thank You, Mr. Moto

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Even before the first “Mr. Moto” movie was released in July 1937, 20th Century Fox knew it had a winning formula on its hands. A second film was already in production, and a third would be in the can before the end of the year. That third film turned out to be such a strong entry that the studio jumped it ahead in line and Thank You, Mr. Moto became the second installment of the series to hit theaters. To many, it remains the very best of the lot.

Peter Lorre had embraced the Moto role as a way out of being typecast as a bogeyman. Before the series wrapped up, he would realize that he’d simply jumped into a new pigeonhole, and would come to despise his association with the character. But in these early days he was still enjoying playing the hero, and his freshness and energy are evident throughout this film’s fast-moving 69 minutes.

Released on Christmas Eve of 1937, this brutal little holiday gift gets off to an atmospheric start as a caravan shelters from a shrieking sandstorm in the Gobi Desert. One of the camel wranglers is a disguised Moto, who’s smuggling a small painted scroll of obvious value. Settling into his tent for the night, he’s attacked by a stealthy Mongolian bent on killing him and taking the scroll. Moto defends himself with ju-jitsu, finishes his attacker with three vicious knife thrusts, and buries him beneath the desert sand – all within the first four minutes of screen time.

The scroll – or, to be precise, the set of scrolls to which it belongs – is the Maguffin here. Laid side by side, they form a map to a treasure hidden in the lost tomb of Genghis Khan – a treasure which a number of cutthroats (which, by that definition, would include Moto himself) have converged on Peiping to claim.

Compared to the straightforward diamond smuggling plot of the first film, it’s a pretty pulpy setup, and miles away from the brutal political drama of Marquand’s novel. Only five years before, Boris Karloff had conducted his own search for Genghis Khan’s tomb in The Mask of Fu Manchu, a wild pre-Code adventure filled with elaborate torture devices, Yellow Peril melodrama and an electric death ray. Three years after Moto’s quest for the scrolls, the Chinese mastermind would still be in search of the Khan’s artifacts in the serial Drums of Fu Manchu. In fact, serials and jungle movies from the ‘30s to the ‘50s would devote countless hours of screen time to quests for a wide variety of legendary entombed treasures. A few decades later, Indiana Jones would mount similar expeditions as an excuse to bullwhip a swath through the Third Reich and tangle with the supernatural.

To their credit, the creative minds behind Thank You, Mr. Moto chose to keep their hero’s feet planted more firmly on the ground and leave the fantasy-style blood and thunder to the likes of Indy and Fu. Rather than death rays and ancient curses, Moto’s quest leads him into sordid encounters with human greed and the violence that it breeds.

The villains here are a Maltese Falcon-esque gang of international criminals headed by the Russian Col. Tchernov (Sig Rumann), his shifty wife (Nedda Harrigan) and their ruthless German partner Eric Koerger (Sidney Blackmer). As part of their plan to grab the treasure, the Tchernovs throw a white-tie garden party and invite a wide range of guests – from members of the diplomatic corps such as young Tom Nelson (Thomas Beck), a code clerk at the American embassy, to travelers like Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), who’s writing a book on ancient Chinese art, to local figures like the iron-willed Madame Chung (Pauline Frederick) and her son Prince Chung (Philip Ahn).

Tchernov asks Prince Chung into his library for a talk, and we learn that those valuable scrolls have been protected by the Chung family for the last 12 generations. Knowing that the venerable family has fallen on hard times, Tchernov tries to tempt the prince into selling them – but no amount of money will persuade him to besmirch the family’s honor by betraying that trust. Willing to spill blood to have his way, the frustrated Tchernov pulls a pistol on the prince.

Unfortunately for Tchernov, he’s also invited Moto to the party – apparently to keep an eye on him as a rival for the scrolls. The colonel’s compatriots aren’t watching closely enough, though, for Moto slips into Tchernov’s library, kills him with a blade to the gut (just 10 minutes’ screen time after knifing the Mongolian in the caravan) and sends Prince Chung on his way before arranging the corpse to look like suicide.

To thank Moto for saving his life, the prince agrees to give him a private viewing of the scrolls that still remain in the family’s possession. (There are two missing from the set, one of them recently stolen from a museum. The other, long rumored to be held at a desert lamasery, had already been stolen by Moto before joining the caravan.) After exclaiming over the beauty of the ancient paintings, Moto tells the prince: “I was sent here to learn whether such a treasure exists, and if it does, to take the necessary steps to recover it.” He, too, offers the Chungs a large payment, but quickly backs off when he discovers the depth of their feelings on the subject. He apologizes for his “ill-bred eagerness” and assures Madame Chung that “I would not offend you by offering to buy them.”

Being Moto, it’s hard to guess just how many lies he’s told in this scene. He certainly isn’t above keeping his word by stealing the scrolls instead of buying them, and during his conversation with Prince Chung, he says in no uncertain terms that “My mission has been clearly defined” – but his affection and respect for this down-at-the-heels noble family has obviously shaken his resolve.

That doesn’t stop Moto from continuing his search for the missing scrolls, though. He interrogates crooked antiques dealer Pereira (John Carradine), who confesses that he was hired to steal the scroll displayed at the museum. Moto threatens to kill him if he doesn’t reveal who he was working for, but this time somebody else beats Moto to the draw: Pereira is shot dead by Koerger’s thugs from a passing sedan.

At this point, things begin moving so quickly that Moto doesn’t even have time to bump anyone off. In quick succession, he himself is nearly murdered and the scroll he’d smuggled back from the caravan is stolen; we discover that the Chungs are in danger from the deadly combination of Koerger and Madame Tchernov, who were apparently carrying on an affair behind the hapless colonel’s back; and Moto is battered into unconsciousness before he can rush to the Chungs’ defense.

The Prince is a sensitive young man, but he toughs out a beating from Koerger and refuses to give away the scrolls’ location. Once the ruthless German switches to brutalizing Madame Chung, her son cracks and turns over the scrolls. Furious, Madame Chung attacks the crooks, only to be shot down by Koerger. Moto arrives too late – Madame Chung lies dead on the floor, and he can’t prevent a dishonored and heartbroken Prince Chung from killing himself.

His treasure hunt has turned sour and very personal. Cradling the dying prince in his arms, he tells him that “Your worthy mother will be avenged, I swear it.” As to the entombed treasure: “Before the gods of your house, I promise that no one shall ever desecrate it.” The prince dies, Moto says a brief prayer, and rises with murder in his eyes.

The race is on. Along the way, Eleanor Joyce has been kidnapped by the gang, and Moto and Tom Nelson burn up the roads in pursuit. As they close in on the boat which will take the gang to the treasure, their car is shot up and plunged into the river. With Moto presumed dead, Nelson is beaten up and taken prisoner, and Koerger sits gloating over his complete set of scrolls. Cue Moto, rising like a diminutive demon from the river, hurling one thug into the drink, cracking the skull of a second with a belaying pin, and literally scaring the hired crew into jumping overboard. The gang has been whittled down to only Koerger and Madame Tchernov – and with a chirpy “Good evening, everybody,” he enters the cabin and confronts the crooked pair.

Trotting out the same mind games he employed at the climax of Think Fast, Mr. Moto, he first convinces them that the scroll stolen from him was a substitute which he’d taken from Pereira’s shop, and that their only chance of finding the treasure is to throw in with him. Then he slips in the knife, planting the suggestion that Koerger’s been playing footsy with Eleanor behind Madame Tchernov’s back. In the resulting confusion, the thug Moto had previously brained comes to just in time to wander into the way of a wild shot from Koerger’s pistol, and Moto proceeds to beat the crap out of Koerger before blowing him away with his own gun.

The gang is destroyed, most of them dead, and Madame Tchernov is facing long unhappy years in a Chinese prison. The key to the treasure Moto had been assigned to claim is in his hands – but he has a more pressing duty to perform. One by one, he burns the precious scrolls to ashes. “Now,” he says, “my friend can face his ancestors without shame.”

Thank You, Mr. Moto demonstrated that the folks at Fox had learned all the right lessons from the success of its predecessor. Only three minutes shorter, it seems to move twice as fast as Think Fast, Mr. Moto. The script is more focused, the stakes are higher and more clearly defined, and now the camera remains on Moto virtually throughout. Though the story is based on another of John P. Marquand’s novels, this time the author’s penchant for keeping his hero in the background has been largely abandoned. There’s still fairly substantial screen time devoted to the young lovers who cross Moto’s path, but the scenes detailing the Tom Nelson/Eleanor Joyce romance all relate back to the central storyline; in fact, it’s a rare Tom-and-Eleanor moment in which Moto himself doesn’t wander through for some brief byplay.

Both Thomas Beck (again, the genial male ingénue) and Sig Rumann (far more polished and menacing than his villainous turn in Think Fast) make their second and final appearances in the series here, and both will be missed. Jayne Regan and John Carradine, on the other hand, would turn up again in future installments – Carradine, in particular, to enact one of the series’ most memorable moments. There would be no return engagements for Blackmer, Ahn or Frederick, which is a pity.

Given considerably more to do in this second outing, Lorre rises beautifully to the occasion, infusing his patented sinister diffidence and deceptively humorous delivery with new dynamism and a few unexpected flashes of humanity that make his moments of violence even more chilling by contrast.

Two installments into the series, we’re still as much in the dark about Moto as anyone he encounters. Tom Nelson describes him as an “adventurer, explorer, soldier of fortune, one of the Orient’s mysteries. Nobody knows very much about him, except that whenever he shows up, something usually happens.” At one point, he identifies himself as a confidential investigator for the International Association of Importers (an apparent demotion from his managing directorship of the Dai Nippon Trading Company in the previous film), and still insists that he’s a detective “only as a hobby.” Later, when he needs fast action from the local cops, he pulls rank as “Mr. Moto of the International Police.”

However, neither identity explains his assignment to find the treasure nor justifies the murders he’s committed along the way. Though the films never refer to his employment by the Japanese government as established in the books, his actions in Thank You, Mr. Moto can be explained no other way. The lost treasure of Genghis Khan would go a long way toward funding the further expansion of his island empire into the Chinese mainland.

As the series continued, the character of Moto would continue to change in ways both subtle and overt, some of those changes deliberate, others due to unavoidable circumstances behind the scenes. Throughout it all, Lorre’s unconventional little antihero remained a vivid and potent characterization…but never used to greater effect than in the immensely satisfying Thank You, Mr. Moto.

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August 7, 2011 · Posted in Legends