Director/Coscreenwriter: Norman Foster
By Roderick Heath
J. P. Marquand had a serious reputation as a writer in the 1930s, but he’s been remembered to posterity chiefly for his sideline in pulp fiction. He created Mr. Moto for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 as a replacement for Charlie Chan, whose creator Earl Derr Biggers had recently died. Marquand quickly wrote several Moto books. His creation proved popular enough that two years later, 20th Century Fox inaugurated a series built around Moto. But this was not quite the same character. Marquand’s I. A. Moto was an Imperial Japanese agent, superficially genial and eccentric but capable of ruthless action. The Hollywood version was renamed Kentaro Moto and redesignated as an importer with a sideline in private investigation who later was employed as an Interpol agent and teacher of criminology. But he was best described by a character in Thank You, Mr. Moto: “Adventurer, explorer, soldier-of-fortune – one of the Orient’s mysteries.”
Whereas Chan was an avuncular collection of clichéd impressions of Chinese immigrants grafted onto the Conan Doyle template for a genius detective at a time when it was a short cut to popularity to give them distinctive ethnic or physical traits, Moto assembled more than a few Japanese clichés: pebble-lens glasses, big gold teeth, hyperattentive politeness, martial arts adeptness, and so on. Fox cast Peter Lorre in the part and gave him a sartorial makeover.
Casting an Austrian Jewish actor as a Japanese gentleman seems a downright perverse idea today, but was hardly strange at the time; Warner Oland and Sidney Toler played Chan and Boris Karloff was both über-villain Fu Manchu and detective Mr. Wong. A big selling point for casting Lorre was that it would show off his thespian dexterity. His Hollywood debut two years earlier with Mad Love had been publicised as the coming to America of a great European actor, one who had electrified audiences worldwide with his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lorre, who learnt his lines by rote for his first English-language role in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was to become one of Hollywood’s indispensible character actors. The Moto films, which occupied him for most of the late ’30s, represented a stint of proper stardom. The role allowed him the widest range within a single part, and even the chance to destabilize presumptions about his character constantly.
Moto, as a skilful detective and globetrotting, multicultural savant, combined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes brand of hero with the physicality of a man of action, a mix that feels more contemporary than most of the era’s pulp heroes. He anticipates later pop-culture titans like James Bond, without his carnal appetites, and Indiana Jones, with whom he shares a fascination with the arcane, with the added complication and fascination of his being a non-Caucasian hero, one who insinuates rather than dominates until he clearly has the upper hand. The Moto series doesn’t entirely transcend the moment of its making.
Yellowface bugs many people today and for good reason, and yet the series just as often ridicules, subverts, or inverts such caricatures, often putting the sublimely poised and skilful Moto in the company of clueless Westerners or having him act out caricatures only to throw them off and stun enemies and onlookers. Lorre’s preternatural gifts are also often exploited so that, in the same way that he puts on a new face, Moto turns it about and becomes just about any ethnicity you please, including perhaps his funniest guise in the series in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), a German artist who derides a gallery full of modernist work and then shows off his kitschy pictures of kids and kittens.
Several instalments in the series were helmed by Norman Foster, a former actor and a talent whose gifts were apparent enough for Orson Welles to collaborate with him on several projects, including Journey into Fear (1943), which marries Moto-ish settings with a more Wellesian technique. He later made some interesting noir films, like Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and then moved into TV, where his career extended into the 1970s. Foster also cowrote the first two Moto films, with their backlot settings offering that delicious tang of the faux-exotic, encompassing much of what was wonderful and goofy about old Hollywood, that many filmmakers since have tried to reproduce. The Moto films are lightning-paced, funny, quirky, brief, but packed full of incident, detail, even mystique.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto, establishes Moto and his abilities in an opening sequence that sees him in the guise of a scruffy carpet merchant wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year on the hunt for a lead. He encounters a masked stranger secreted in a wicker basket in the store, where Moto tries to sell a diamond; his Union Jack tattoo will identify him as the man who murdered an investigator. Moto has to fight his way out when an officious policeman who thinks Moto’s an unlicensed peddler enters the scene, sparking a three-way battle in which Moto’s jujitsu abilities triumph. Returning to his hotel, the “real” Moto emerges from under the layers of his disguise, but Moto’s motives and designs remain largely opaque until the climax.
One reason I fell under the spell of Moto as a character when I was a kid stems from this ambiguity. Although toned down from Marquand, Moto is still startling in switches of affect and manner, swinging from beaming friendliness and ready-to-please affability to command or chilling retributory violence according to the needs of the moment. When he confronts the tattooed murderer, who proves to be a passenger liner steward named Carson (John Rogers), Moto’s swerve into cold menace as he faces down and approaches the knife-wielding baddie is impressively badass, and their knock-down, drag-out fight climaxes with Moto heaving Carson over his head and hurling him over the ship’s side like a sack of rubbish.
This follows on from an earlier scene in which, dragged into a stateroom by a party of boisterously patronising Americans, he puts up with them until he repays their pushiness by tossing several bodily about the room. It’s a bit of roughhouse payback that Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), object of the party and son of the ship’s owner, is good-humoured enough to understand. Moto and Hitchings prove to be linked by both the past—they belonged to the same college fraternity—and by secret, immediate motives; Moto is investigating a smuggling ring that’s been operating through the Hitchings Line, owned by Bob’s father, and Bob, trying to shake off his playboy habits, is heading to take over the Chinese end of the line’s export operations.
Think Fast, scarcely over an hour long, nonetheless sets up Moto as a perfect pulp hero—infinitely talented, complete with an arsenal of awesome headache cures, magic tricks, and cardsharp legerdemain, tough in all respects and yet usually happily plays a pleasant Asian milquetoast, declining alcoholic drinks in favour of milk. Considering how awkwardly a lot of franchise films these days lumber about for hours trying to set up heroic characters, the casual concision of the film still feels like a perfect antidote and model, an engine of humming efficiency that modern Hollywood could do well to study.
Foster surrounds Moto with a rich assortment of character actors and teeming settings, as if he wanted to pack in every possible trope of the exotic mystery, from the shipboard setting and romance to the plunge into Shanghai nightlife where White Russian and Sikh gangsters rub shoulders with international flotsam. Foster orchestrates it all with efficient energy: indeed it’s been funny watching recent high-class movies, like The White Countess (2004), Lust, Caution (2006), and Shanghai (2011), tackling the same milieu and failing to feel half as real, lacking that mythic tilt Hollywood once wielded so deceptively and fearlessly. Ironically, recently you have to go to Hong Kong cinema, like Tsui Hark’s work, like Peking Opera Blues (1986), for similar panache.
Think Fast sticks to the basic pattern of Marquand books, as Moto teams up with an American innocent abroad who falls into the orbit of a woman of mystery, in this case, Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Gloria poses as a wealthy traveller to ensnare Bob, expertly tempting him by feigning initial indifference, but, of course, she actually falls for him and is whisked off the ship by her employer, Nicolas Marloff (Sig Ruman), upon arrival in Shanghai. Marloff runs the International Club, one of those chic nightspots Hollywood would have believed were just everywhere in those days.
Bob talks the Hitchings Line’s local manager, Mr. Wilkie (Murray Kinnell) into helping him find Gloria, but it’s Moto who secretly tips Bob off that she actually works as a singer in the International Club, and, of course, Moto has good reasons for bringing all the players together. Just getting to the club proves an ordeal for Moto and Lela, as they’re shanghaied by their rickshaw coolies on the order of Marloff’s agent, turban-clad Adram (J. Carrol Naish), who tries to assassinate Moto. Moto proves better with a gun than Adram does with a knife, winging Adram. Then one of the coolies tries to arrange his death by leaving his rickshaw in front of Bob and Wilkie’s oncoming car.
In good old Hollywood style, once they get to the club, there’s a brief time-out for a song by Gloria (warbling a godawful ditty in which she declares, “I’m just a shy vi-o-let.”). A couple of times during the series, Moto grazes against a love interest, usually a young Chinese-American starlet, but that couldn’t go anywhere with a white guy, even one dressed up as Japanese. Plus Moto’s not exactly the type you see settling down to have 10 kids like Charlie Chan. Here he enlists hotel telephone operator Lela Liu (Lotus Long) to listen in on interesting calls, and then to be his date/back-up on the venture to the International Club. She finishes up getting shot in the back by an unseen villain as she tries to call the police to Moto’s aid, although later we’re assured she survives.
One of the strong qualities of the series is the humour that constantly accompanies the thrills and seriousness, although it sometimes verges on goofy, as here when Moto has a hapless bartender make up a ridiculous hangover cure that includes gin, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg. Wryer is Moto cementing his friendship with Bob by revealing they were fraternity brothers; when Hitchings recalls Moto broke a pole vault record, Moto replies, “Now I would only break the pole.” In another example, one of Bob’s society lush pals, after seeing Moto toss her friends about the stateroom, asks in delight, “Hey – do that to me!” When Marloff asks what Moto is writing in Chinese on a menu, Moto replies that it’s an ancient haiku poem—except that when Lela reads it, it translates into a message to call the cops. In later films, Moto’s heroism is taken as a given, but in the first two entries he retains an opacity akin to ’70s antiheroes in his willingness to play dirty when necessary, think on his feet, and seem to ally with the bad guys if it gets him closer to his goal.
Because his identity is so hard to nail down, he can get away with such tricks. When Marloff confronts him with the sight of Bob and Gloria trussed up and captive, Moto laughs and casually advises Marloff to keep Bob as a hostage and “slit her throat and be done with it.” This note echoes again in Thank You, Mr. Moto, in which he smilingly tells a woman, in response to her accusation that he killed a man to get hold of a valuable property, “Of course. I thought it was a very good reason.” The finale of Think Fast is a whirlwind of twists and reversals: exposed by the wounded Adram, Moto is shot by Marloff, and seems done for. Marloff prepares a coup de grace, only for Moto to rise miraculously and toss his enemies about the room before revealing his bulletproof vest to Bob and Gloria and slapping handcuffs on Wilkie, who proves to be both the real head of the smuggling ring and Lela’s attempted killer.
The collegial feel of the series is partly due to the stock company of actors who played similar or recurring roles: Ruman and Beck play slight variations on their characters in Thank You, whilst Field popped up again in two more. In Mr. Moto’s Last Warning and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (both 1939), Moto is “helped” by bumbling Englishmen, inverting the usual diptych of Anglo hero and ethnic sidekick. In another entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1938), Moto gains the aid of good-natured palooka, “Twister” McGurk (Warren Hymer), who becomes Moto’s aide in his eagerness to learn Moto’s great wrestling moves. Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film, has the film buff’s delight of seeing Moto contending with Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s inimitable Number One son Lee.
This was a side effect of the rapid revision of the script, intended for a Chan entry, after Oland’s sudden death. In the film Moto mentions his respect for Lee’s father, and maintains Chan’s solicitude to the extent of having Lee locked up in jail to keep him out of trouble. Another interesting sidekick for Moto came in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), where Rochelle Hudson plays an aviatrix who’s also a spy, staging a crash landing in the Vietnamese jungle to seek out the same rebellious conspiracy Moto’s investigating. The strongest villain of the series was also a self-reflexive piece of casting, as Joseph Schildkraut appeared in the final entry, Takes a Vacation, playing a supervillain with a genius for disguise. Like Lorre, Schildkraut was an Austro-Hungarian émigré and spends most of the film made up as another character, successfully impersonating a crusty American scientist before he’s unmasked, rises to full courtly bearing, and lets slip his Germanic lisp.
The whole series is generally a lot of fun, but Thank You, Mr. Moto easily stands tallest. Having established Moto, Norman’s second entry does what good sequels are supposed to do; it gets on with business, but also can be enjoyed by any viewer coming in blind. The opening sequence is a gem of atmosphere, as a caravan crossing the Gobi Desert is assailed by a sandstorm, and one of the travellers, a disguised Moto, contends with the homicidal attentions of another member of the party. Attacked in his tent, Moto battles the assassin by the flicker of an oil lamp, with the desolate wind whistling outside.
Moto wins the fight, battering his opponent into submission, but the battle begins again when Moto releases him. This time Moto hacks him to death with a knife and begins digging up the sand under the tent to bury the corpse. Moto reaches Peiping (then the name of Beijing), but runs afoul of Schneider (Wilhelm von Brincken), a supposedly concerned citizen who’s whipped up the police to hypervigilance over smuggled art treasures. Schneider smartly detects that Moto has a scroll painting hidden inside his prop walking cane. Moto snatches the scroll and runs for it, managing to elude capture and make it to his hotel room, where his current valet doesn’t recognise him at first. Moto divests himself of guise and valet and attends a formal garden party being thrown by Colonel Tchernov (Ruman), a wealthy White Russian wash-up. Moto recognises the gamesmanship behind such gestures: “Garden parties are seldom given in Peiping without a purpose.”
That purpose proves to be so Tchernov could invite Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick), make an offer to buy their family’s collection of scroll paintings and, if they refuse to sell, use coercive means to gain his prize. The party sequence is a another gem, this time of expository staging, commencing with a Hitchcockian crane shot the glides across Tchernov’s ballroom. The villains and heroes of the piece and all congregated with classical dramatic method, with all the major protagonists save the Chungs literally lined up to meet Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), an American Oriental art historian and guest of the Tchernovs. Romantic, young consular official Tom Nelson (Beck) sets out to charm Eleanor with an extended gag about his psychic knowledge of her actually culled from her passport. Moto’s entrance, solitary and singular, is accompanied by a suddenly forceful passage in the dance music, gaining everybody’s interest and cautious attention, especially Tchernov, who invited him to keep an eye on him. This backfires, of course.
Moto’s subsequent absence from the ballroom goes unnoticed by everyone except, in a terrific throwaway detail, the waiter carrying his customary glass of milk, as he thwarts Tchernov’s attempt to force Chung at gunpoint to sign over ownership of his scrolls. Foster elides Moto’s intervention; only when Eleanor intrudes, with Prince Chung brushing past hurriedly, does the resolution of the confrontation reveal itself, but through Eleanor’s confused eyes, seeing only Moto and a corpse. Moto convinces her to keep quiet about his and the Prince’s presence so that Tchernov’s death will be ruled a suicide, but finds herself increasingly uncomfortable, believing Moto murdered Tchernov.
The scroll paintings prove to be part of an elegant pulp McGuffin that form a map to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan: the scroll Moto brought back with him from the Gobi is part of the set, deliberately stored away from the others long away to render the map incomplete. Moto has been hired to race against Tchernov’s allies, Schneider and Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), to bring all of the scrolls together and locate the tomb with its fabled treasure.
Everyone wants the scrolls, even Eleanor, albeit for her collection. An antiquarian, Pereira (John Carradine, sporting droopy moustache and fez for some reason), tempts her with one, which might be one of the Chungs’ stolen scrolls. Moto rumbles Pereira by visiting his shop and spots the scroll he’s trying to sell as a fake, but also perceives he stole the real scroll. Pereira is gunned down from a car speeding by just as he’s about to tell Moto who hired him for the heist. Moto faces the same sticking point as Tchernov in trying to learn the secret of the scrolls: even with the Prince’s gratitude to Moto for saving his life, the Chungs refuse to part with their legacy and decry the inevitable looting of the Khan’s tomb. The Chungs’ place in this drama generates peculiar emotional intensity, with Madame Chung’s haughty efforts to cling to the last remnants of their clan pride in the chaotic modern world and China’s dismembered state circa 1937—she used to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress—and her son’s arduous position in trying to honour traditional values but protect his mother.
This schism is painfully illustrated as Koerger and company break into the Chungs’ house, tie up the Prince, and, after beating him fails to dent his resolve to keep silent, begin torturing his mother. This proves more than the Prince can resist, and he gives up the scrolls to the villains. Far from being grateful, however, Madame Chung is appalled at her son’s lapse and makes a last-ditch tilt for honour by trying to stab Koerger with a ceremonial knife. Koerger shoots her, and Chung, once freed by Moto and Nelson, stabs himself with the same knife, expiring in convulsions of shame and despair. Ahn’s excellent performance as Chung, genuinely strong and proud, but with his one weakness awfully, tragically laid bare, sells this sequence.
It stirs an interesting reaction in Moto, who reveals a streak of serious Buddhist faith and a conscientious determination to avenge his friend and balance his cosmic books. Moto operates throughout the film, as he did in the first one, between worldviews and hemispheric cultural sensibilities, which are tellingly represented by two versions of the same thing: Tchernov, an exiled tsarist, and the Chungs are both fallen aristocrats out of place in the mid-century tumult, but with radically different responses to crumbling values of homicidal rapacity versus suicidal fidelity, and meeting mirroring ends: Tchernov’s fake suicide (“We call it harakiri,” Moto tells Eleanor) and Chung’s real one. Moto, operating according to mercenary requirement (“My mission has been clearly defined,” he tells Chung), nonetheless feels the pull of other values as the mission becomes more urgent.
A new dimension emerges as Eleanor eavesdrops on Tchernov’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) and learns she’s been having an affair with Koerger, which her husband’s death leaves her nicely free to continue. Eleanor becomes the object of Madame Tchernov’s jealousy when Koerger takes her prisoner, a random but felicitous element that gives Moto the key to destroying his enemies. Another interesting prefiguration of many a modern action hero is that way Moto becomes a kind of avenging angel: after the Chungs’ death, Tom and Moto pursue the villainous party who have Eleanor captive and most of the scrolls in hand in a car (“You handle your car quite well.” “It’s not mine, I borrowed it from my boss.”).
After being shot at, Tom drives straight into a river, car crashing in the water with an almighty splash, and the pair struggle to escape the wreck and swim to safety under a hail of bullets. Tom is knocked out with an oar, and Moto seems to die from a bullet in the back. The villains set off on the trail to Khan’s tomb on a junk, but find their crew spooked by what they call a demon dogging their path. This is Moto of course, who, soaked and covered in mud and detritus, keeps emerging from the dark and fog to knock off henchmen, including Schneider, until he can crash in on Koerger, whom he keeps at bay in spite of the gun in his hand with an elaborate hail of bluffs. Eleanor proves quick-witted enough to help Moto in this, pretending that she’s also Koerger’s lover, which infuriates Madame Tchernov enough to grab at Koerger’s gun hand—all the window Moto needs.
The very finish sees Moto burning the scrolls to ensure that they won’t ever cause such havoc again and to honour his promise to Chung, rounding off the film with a touch of numinous beauty as Moto prays over the smoking ashes in the flickering firelight of the junk cabin. There’s a haunting note here, with a level of deference for the shared cultural maxims of Chung and Moto that adds up to a rare touch in a genre action movie of the time. Again, Thank You is only 67 minutes long and yet packs in enough narrative layers for a film three times as long.
All of the Moto films have solid production values, particularly marked in Thank You, with rich, chiaroscuro evocations of Peiping courtesy of Virgil Miller’s fine photography, with swank Western enclaves, busy street scenes, and gritty, shadow-swamped, almost besieged atmosphere on the fringes where soldiers wait by ancient gates on the edge of sepulchral territories where it seems entirely possible that Moto could be a demon on the hunt for vengeance, although that note is dispelled when he breaks in on Koerger and offers, in his familiarly chirpy way, “Good evening everybody!” The mood echoes back to Josef von Sternberg’s oneiric chinoiserie in Shanghai Express (1932) and forward to Seijun Suzuki’s stylised remembrance in Story of a Prostitute (1964), whilst works of referential pastiche, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hammett (1982), would later find it a touchstone. The Moto series was ended by the spectre of World War II after eight instalments; the character was left out of the film version of Marquand’s last Moto novel, Stopover Tokyo (1958). Moto’s only comeback has been a cheap 1965 entry played by Henry Silva of all people. Japanese heroes aren’t so verboten now in Western popular culture, though chiefly only the historical kind. I’d love to see Mr. Moto return.