THINK FAST, MR. MOTO took author John P. Marquand’s literary creation of a globe-trotting, eminently polite, deceptively deadly Japanese sleuth and introduced him on screen in the delightfully offbeat personage of Peter Lorre. The 1937 item, liberally lifted from Marquand’s third of six Moto adventures, clicked with the public and was followed by seven more over the next two years, all with Lorre. *
High-stakes international smugglers aren’t above murder, and the trail of treachery leads from San Francisco to Shanghai, via passenger freighter, with a stop in Honolulu en route. Directed by Norman Foster, who co-wrote the script with Howard Ellis Smith, the particulars of the plot aren’t great shakes, but for the most part the handling is sure, and the exotic atmosphere (set-bound but effective) is boosted by a lively score from R.H. Bassett and Samuel Kaylin.
Thomas Beck and Virginia Field as the romantic interest, clonk, proving that acting lessons can be of some value, but there are good bad guys in the familiar forms of Sig Rumann and J. Carrol Naish. Lorre, 32, is a treat, and, as we will discover, in this and in subsequent stories, ‘Kentaro Moto’ is a force to reckon with, a blend of silk and steel. **
Soft-spoken, his soothing diction and disarming manner covering a variety of skills and talents, at equal ease with charming (occasionally backhanded) compliments, lingering innuendos or velvet insinuations. An expert at judo, and a good shot, he doesn’t hesitate to employ deadly violence and is unruffled in its aftermath. He makes use of disguises, can speak several languages, has musical ability, and prefers milk to alcohol (yet knows a heck of hangover cure).
A tidy return of $1,600,000 (around $30,833,000 in 2022) guaranteed more Moto to come. Case closed in 66 minutes, with Lotus Long, William Law, George Cooper (as ‘Muggs’), Sammee Tong and Philip Ahn.
* Pulitzer-winning (for “The Great George Apley”) John P. Marquand was touring Japan, getting ideas for a series that might compete with the “most honorable” Charlie Chan. During his travels he was followed everywhere by a diminutive, exceedingly well-mannered detective, whose job was apparently to discern whether the American was nosing around for something more than a character for the “Saturday Evening Post”. Marquand’s Moto resulted. Interestingly, the Empire’s man of mystery caught favor with audiences at the same time as people were being shocked and outraged by the bloody handiwork of the sons of the Rising Sun’s, busy ferociously mauling China. Politics and matinees make strange bedfellows. Moto would say that better, with a mixture of bemusement, condescension, charm and menace.
Lorre: “Mr. Moto is a Japanese, a clever, swift-thinking rather suave person. Well, then, I become that person and what I do is right. I do not need to study a real Japanese man to know what to do. That is wrong. There is a typed idea of each nationality and actors think they must imitate that idea, as if Japanese or Chinese men were not as varied as we are ourselves!….Each man moves according to what he is. When you have imagined what he is, you must move as he does.”
Bonus in this initial installment is Mr. Moto’s hangover remedy: lemon juice, pinch of salt, 1 egg, 4 dashes orange bitters, 1 jigger Worcestershire sauce, 2 tsp sugar absinthe, fill to top with gin. Stir. Drink. You try it first.