Snoopathon: Mr. Moto

(This is a re-purposing of two posts from 2011, presented here as part of Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, hosted by the entertaining Movies Silently site June 1-3. Follow that link to a list of articles on the classic secret agents of movies and TV.)

In the movies, no one has ever personified The Outsider better than Peter Lorre. His baby-faced murderer (and perhaps worse) of children in M, 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  outré roles; it’s 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 simply 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 in 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 roll 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 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 amusing 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, this humble 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 silkily sinister to downright frightening, reminding us of the qualities that made Lorre a star to begin with. Whatever the tenor of the scene, in fact, Lorre’s remarkable underplaying is evident throughout, as is a comedic flair that gives the viewer permission to embrace Moto even after we’ve learned that his gentle charm is just an act.

The matter of “yellowface” frequently arises when today’s viewers look back on the era’s Chans, Motos and higher-rent cousins like The Good Earth or The Bitter Tea of General Yen. It’s a practice impossible to defend, especially given the number of talented Asian actors available at the time who were never considered for important roles. The studios claimed that box office considerations forced them to use proven popular (aka, white) actors in the starring parts – though Hollywood had been happy to embrace Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as a leading man more than 20 years before when it became clear that putting his intensity and sex appeal on the screen was a license to print money.

Who, then, would have been an acceptable replacement in the role? Keye Luke, Philip Ahn and Richard Loo – all around Lorre’s age – were probably the most recognizable Asian actors working in American movies at the time, and arguably the most likely to have been considered. But Luke, though the best known, was almost certainly too valuable to the studio as Charlie Chan’s popular Number One Son to have been gambled on an unproven new property. And Ahn and Loo, though familiar faces, hadn’t yet had the chance to prove themselves in the larger supporting roles that would become their stock in trade over the following decade.

But if we’re judging the casting for reasons of ethnicity, there’s another consideration. Luke and Loo were of Chinese descent, Ahn a Korean American. None of them were any more Japanese than Peter Lorre, and to say that any of them would have been more acceptable verges on saying that all Asians are interchangeable. There simply weren’t any Japanese actors in Hollywood at that time who’d been permitted to strut their stuff sufficiently to be thought of as leading men. That may seem too fine a distinction to some…but if you’re not Japanese, maybe you don’t get a vote.

In those terms, the most suitable actor of all would have been the great Sessue Hayakawa himself. At 49, he would have been closer to the age of the character as suggested by Marquand. Hayakawa’s abilities and intelligence rivaled Lorre’s. And though he’d left Hollywood in the previous decade, his name was far from forgotten, arguably still as likely to sell tickets as that of the relative newcomer who ended up with the part. But Hayakawa was working in Europe in 1937, and would find himself trapped there following the occupation of France.

At any rate, it’s pointless to blame Lorre for the sins of the system. The product of a theatrical tradition that held the ability to play other races and ages as proof of versatility, it’s likely – and, under the circumstances, reasonable – that the question of political correctness never entered his mind. Considering his struggle with expensive and painful health problems, and further heavy debts incurred during his flight from the Nazis, you’d have to be a pretty hard-hearted 21st century blogger to cast aspersions at a refugee who was lucky enough to find a steady gig during the Depression.

Compared to the usual “yellowface” performance of the time, the transformation of actor into role was relatively subtle. 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, informed far more by the character’s soft-spoken whimsicality than an effort to reproduce Japanese speech patterns.

In the role of a Japanese man in 1938, 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 films 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.

Even before the first “Moto” movie was released in July 1937, Fox knew it had a winning property 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 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, 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 Falconesque 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 committing suicide.

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 Yangtze. 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 hapless 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 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 police, 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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June 1, 2014 · Posted in Legends  
    

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