When it comes to iconic sleuths of popular fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes rules supreme – witness the success of the BBC’s contemporary take and Guy Ritchie’s buddy movies. It was the same back in the 1930s and 1940s when Basil Rathbone first donned the deerstalker. But there were also some other well-known gumshoes muscling in Sherlock’s territory, including The Saint and The Falcon, and two oriental detectives, Charlie Chan and Mr Moto.
The character of Mr Moto originally appeared in six novels between 1935 and 1957. Impeccably-dressed, with an penchant for the martial arts, wearing disguises and speaking numerous languages, the diminutive Japanese American Interpol agent was like an Asian James Bond – albeit minus 007’s sex drive. Following the success of the Charlie Chan movies starring Warner Oland, 20th Century Fox brought Mr Moto to life in the shape of Peter Lorre, who had joined the studio in 1936. While the idea of a Hungarian sporting a Viennese accent playing a Japanese character seemed odd at first, Lorre threw himself into the part (with very little make-up – even the teeth are his own) and it worked.
The success of the first film, Think Fast, Mr Moto, ensured the franchise. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was that Lorre was still undergoing drug rehabilitation, so all the scenes in which you see Moto showing off his expert martial art skills were in fact done by stuntman supremo, Harvey Parry (he doubled for Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart – even Vincent Price). But with Parry’s physical feats and Lorre’s acting skills combined, Mr Moto ran for the next eight films, and only came to an end when Lorre (upset he wasn’t getting any comic gigs at Fox) got released from his studio contract.
The entire Mr Moto series is now becoming available on DVD in the UK through Odeon Entertainment. Here’s the first four being released (out of order, for some unknown reason):
Mr Moto’s Gamble (1938). Warner Oland was scheduled to star in Charlie Chan at the Fights. When he fell ill, and later died, the studio turned it into the third Mr Moto film, set in the world of boxing. Chan’s Number One son Keye Luke co-stars. Watch out for Lynn Bari (she starred opposite Vincent Price in Shock) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Lon Chaney Jr as an Irish heavy.
Mr Moto Takes a Chance (1938). Released two months after Gamble, the mystery melodrama finds Moto at the ruins of Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, where he discovers a plot to wipe out every foreigner from all of Asia. Despite the fake sets and questionable antics of an American film crew caught up in the drama, its a hoot.
Mr Moto in Danger Island (1939) Released three months after Mr Moto’s Last Warning, this remake of the 1934 feature Murder in Trinidad finds Mr Moto trapping a killer and diamond smuggler in Puerto Rico. Real-life philanthropist Jean Hersholt, who won two Oscars for humanitarian causes guest stars.
Mr Moto Takes a Vacation (1939) In his last film, Lorre guards a priceless crown destined for San Francisco. The villain of the piece is a master of disguises. Could it be Lionel Atwill, best known for his macabre roles in Mystery in the Wax Museum (1933) and Universal’s Frankenstein films in the 1940s?
The final four in the series – Think Fast, Mr Moto (1937), Thank You, Mr Moto (1937), Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938) and Mr Moto’s Last Warning (1939) – will be available on 11 June. Click on the links to find out more.
• If you are a fan of the film franchise, check out The Complete Mr Moto Film Phile: A Casebook by Howard M Berlin; and The Case Files of the Oriental Sleuths: Charlie Chan, Mr Moto & Mr Wong by David Rothel.
Here’s the trailer for Mr Moto’s Gamble.