BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE MR. MOTO COLLECTION

By • Aug 1st, 2006 •

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Fox Home Entertainment

THINK FAST MR. MOTO (1937) 66 mins.
THANK YOU MR. MOTO (1937) 67 mins.
MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE (1938) 63 mins.
MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO (1938) 63 mins.

Peter Lorre is a wholly unique presence, whether debuting as a mass murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, or not quite finding his niche in the MOTO films and the MAD LOVE’s of the 30’s, whether pal-ing around with Bogart and company in the 40’s, or just phoning in his performances (albeit with his wonderful personality intact) in the 60s. Many think of him as German since he notoriously fled Nazi Berlin, but he was Hungarian, with the exact same voice and accent as George Pal. Bertolt Brecht worshipped him, Hitler felt strongly enough about him to have Goebbels telegram him to come back to Germany (he’d left on moral grounds, but he was Jewish as well.) Hitchcock was smart enough to use him twice. And Roger Corman realized a good thing when he had it and just let him be himself, to audiences’ sheer delight.

Here, finally, we have a MOTO collection, four of the eight films he made for Fox, following on the heels of their CHARLIE CHAN series with Warner Oland. Amazing, really, that a Swede played Chan, a Hungarian played Moto, an Englishman (Boris Karloff) played Mr. Wong, and Lugosi even essayed an Asian character in THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG (not to be confused with Karloff’s THE MYSTERYOF MISTER WONG), though not a detective. You can understand why Bruce Lee got real angry after David Carradine stepped into a part designed for him. Enough enough.

But Oland was old, and Lorre, though addicted to morphine, was young. And the MOTO series at its best (the first two in this collection, and the fourth) has energy to spare. Moto is an adventurer, an explorer, a soldier-of-fortune. He’s also an art dealer and a dabbler in the art of detection. Additionally, despite his normally quiet, deferential demeanor, Mr. Moto periodically kills with abandon – he’s really an early variant on OO7 if one thinks about it; he has no qualms whatsoever about dispensing his enemies. He even comments about it blithely to co-stars. Perhaps his character got away with it because these were ‘B’ features, not watched over as zealously by studio or censor, but whatever the reason, there was plenty of the dual nature Brecht admired so much in Lorre’s work.

Lorre resisted wearing Asian makeup; guided by his thespian ego, he felt the character would come from within, manifesting itself believably through the performance. A tall order, but it actually works. You might think that at the very least the teeth were an appliance, but no, those pyorrhea infected gums and ivories were Lorre’s own, and at least one co-star (Leon Ames – MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO) recalled that he could smell his bad breath from across the studio. (Lorre got it taken care of in the 40’s – check out the WB films for his new, improved dentures.)

Each of these four installments has Moto don some elaborate disguise (not one of the great recommendations for the series), and engage in a little judo or fisticuffs (the best scene in THINK FAST, MR. MOTO, and the most satisfying scene in MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO – though it ends with a whimper). Audiences apparently loved the fight scenes, energetic little bursts of violence from the otherwise complex but passive title character, and Lorre’s stuntman, Harvey Parry, is interestingly recollected in the first disc’s featurette, including a recording of him recounting his early days in film. The judo overall is not bad, if somewhat ‘serial’-like, but the flying leaps are a bit much.

Norman Foster directed them all, and his was an interesting, nearly invisible career, extremely well chronicled at a breakneck pace (which he would have appreciated) in 20+ minutes on the fourth disc (MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO). Having directed MOTO, CHARLIE CHAN (with Toler), JOURNEY INTO FEAR (for and starring Orson Welles), and KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (a noir if ever a title signified one), I’d still have to say his most important work was the ‘Davey Crockett’ series for the Walt Disney TV series (available on DVD in a handsome tin), in particular DAVEY CROCKETT AT THE ALAMO (1955), one of the best tellings of the historical incident, and certainly the most profound version in terms of the effect it had on the American public. He also acted, dated Claudette Colbert, married Loretta Young’s sister, made documentaries he cared about, directed films in Mexico, and co-starred in Welles’ last, unfinished film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. As a director, he went the extra mile in terms of artistic commitment, which ennobled his ‘B’ efforts, and the MOTO’s are a fine demonstration of that trait, (well, maybe not the disappointingly silly third film in this collection – MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE, which reminds one of the devolving pattern of the LETHAL WEAPON series, though in MOTO’s case, the trend was corrected by the fourth disc in the collection). The featurette gathers together many fond faces from Foster’s career and personal life, including Fess Parker, who has in recent years been turning out California wine.

What’s not to like in the MOTO’s? Well, perhaps the near-superfluous romances in the first two, with ingenues not unlike those in the MGM Marx Bros. films. Boy, do they feel tacked on. Like we’d get tired of Lorre!? What were they thinking?

That and the editing, which is too often sloppy, disrupting the flow of the fight scenes in particular, and Lorre’s performance to a lesser degree. A shame, because as good as the art direction is, and it’s terrific for a ‘B’ series, that’s how bad the editing is. Who was in charge of that, and how rushed was the Post Production schedule?

The quality of the masters used here is excellent. Quite a bit of work was done in terms of dirt removal and image stabilization, and Fox is obviously proud of it, so much so that there’s a restoration demo on each disc. The documentaries on each disc are pleasant, produced by John Cork, and display that extra bit of dedication that Foster displayed in so many of his features. One of the featurettes, about unsung studio head Sol Wurtzel, makes me wish there were a book on all the moguls from the inception of the studio system to the present. Wouldn’t that be fascinating.

Integral in the featurettes is Stephen D. Youngkin, who penned the new, deeply researched tome on Lorre, “The Lost One’. The book is an ideal companion piece for the new collection, but also a worthy addition to any ‘film shelf’, since Lorre was so much a part of his times, and the times are illuminated by reading about him. It’s a little too much of a mosaic for my taste, that due to the fact that Youngkin has been researching and interviewing people for decades, and understandably-but-tryingly felt compelled to use snippets of everything he’s amassed before he was through. Still, it’s a sporadically good read, with a gorgeous cover.


THINK FAST MR. MOTO
Includes featurette ‘The Dean of Hollywood – a Conversation with Harvey Parry”.
Directed by Norman Foster. Produced by Sol Wurtzel. Screenplay by Howard Ellis Smith and Foster.
With: Peter Lorre, Virginia Field, Sig Rumann.

THANK YOU MR. MOTO
Includes featurette “Sol Wurtzel: The Forgotten Mogul”
Directed by Foster.
Produced by Wurtzel. Screenplay by Wyllis Cooper and Foster.
With Lorre, Rumann, John Carradine, Sidney Blackmer, Pauline Frederick.

MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE
Includes featurette on Lorre.
Directed by Foster.
Produced by Wurtzel.
Screenplay by Lou Breslow and Wyllis Cooper
With Lorre, Rochelle Hudson, Chick Chandler.

MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO
With featurette “Directed by Norman Foster”.
Directed by Foster.
Produced by Wurtzel.
Screenplay by Philip MacDonald and Foster.
With Lorre, Henry Wilcoxen, Mary Maguire, Erik Rhodes.

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