The Mr. Moto films have been released in two four movie box sets, though one film, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning is in the public domain and has been available for years on dozens of DVD release.
Mr. Moto was created by James Marquand in 1935 and came to film in 1937 with Peter Lorre playing the role for eight films. All Oriental Detectives played by white actors are controversial, but in many ways, Lorre’s performance is different from the portrayal of several actors of the character of Charlie Chan.
Moto speaks in far less proverbs and is also a very active character, a master of the martial and disguise. His capacity and exact reason for being a detective follow him around the world with plenty of intrigue and more than its fair share of violence with Moto killing a few of his enemies in the course of the series.
There were eight Moto films released between 1937-39. For the most part, they are quite enjoyable with well-written plots, great acting by Peter Lorre, and plenty of excitement to go around. Moto operates as a complete man of mystery in the first film with you not even knowing what he wants. The second features Moto on the trail of a treasure and establishes a far more Eastern character.
The first two films were top notch. The third film, Mr. Moto Gamble was actually originally intended as a Charlie Chan feature that was handed over to Moto. This showed up. While Moto did get to use Judo, this one was a bit of an oddball, but entertaining in its own right.
The fourth film The Mysterious Mr. Moto Takes a Chance finds Moto undercover in Thailand as an archaeologist, actually undercover under two false identities. This film would introduce the worst element of later Moto films-the idiot sidekick. Here, it’s a minor distraction but around the time of the seventh film, it’d really begin to wear.
The second half of the Moto films began with The Mysterious Mr. Moto which has Moto going undercover as a Japanese killer and escaping with another convict from Devil’s Island and this one actually has Moto dealing with Anti-Oriental prejudice, a novel twist for the time.
The sixth film, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning is a great film with the star of the original Maltese Falcon playing a villainous ventriloquist as Moto appears to have been killed off for most of the film.
The seventh film was still okay, but it Danger Island was clearly a declining effort. The stupid sidekick was more annoying and the inclusion of the gratuitous Black character afraid of “the spook” doesn’t age well for modern audiences. While the mystery is clever enough, a bad casting choice mars the solution.
The Final Lorre film Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation is proof that most mystery series of the era went one movie too long. Really, Lorre was tired, the writing was tired. As the commentary on the DVDs recounted, Lorre had felt like the studio had lied to him and instead of giving him a variety of rolls, had simply changed from casting him a murderous monster to casting him as Moto.
Speaking of the commentary, I have to give credit 20th Century Fox. They did a fine job of assembling interesting and informative commentators who knew their Moto. Each one except the last Moto film had a mini-featurette on the Moto films, the culture of the time, or Peter Lorre.
The eighth film didn’t have this. As an extra, it offered up a long lost 1965 Mr. Moto film starring Henry Silva that probably would have been better staying lost. The Moto character had changed from the original Japanese character to a Japanese American with a strong Japanese accent in the 1950s radio show to Silva’s Moto with no sign of being Japanese by any measure. Fox added as an extra, Mr. Silva providing commentary on the film. However, it became clear that the then 78 year old Silva had little real recollection of his work on the forgettable film forty years before, so instead he rambled on without any rhyme or reason for most of the film.
Putting aside, the issue with the eighth film (and it’s awful extras), the Moto series at its best was well-done, exciting, and entertaining. It’s a great showcase for Lorre, particularly if you’ve only seen him playing him the villain. Fox added some good extras and even the Silva film is of interest if you want to see anything with Moto in it.
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