Archive for Mr Moto

Naked Came the Strangler

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2010 by dcairns

I love monster movies where the monster is an attractive naked woman! No, wait, “love” isn’t right, what’s the word I want? Oh yes, despise.

Still, THE DEATHHEAD VIRGIN is a curio, being the last film of Norman Foster, former minor movie star (forever traducing Sylvia Sidney in the thirties) later director of JOURNEY INTO FEAR and the best of the MR. MOTO films (pretty entertaining stuff, depending on what you’re drinking). It was made in the Philippines, which is generally a mark of quality when it comes to horror films. Low quality is still quality, right?

I know, I’ve started off with a dubious assumption, that there’s some kind of sub-genre of monster movie that substitutes nudie cuties for Charles Gemorra/Rick Baker in a monkey suit, or a Carlo Rambaldi animatronic contraption, or a CGI virtual sculpture of a bat with a cow’s legs. Well, that sub-genre consists of (1) LIFEFORCE, a simply remarkable Tobe Hooper oddity which recasts the concerns of the QUATERMASS films and TV series through the concerns of a frantically masturbating sixteen-year-old schoolboy. Favourite moment: the scary shadow of the monster on a wall, consisting of the shapely silhouette of Mathilda May, breasts jutting like zeppelins. Can you feel the stark terror?

And (2) THE FACULTY, directed by Robert “will this do?” Rodriguez, which climaxes with the hero being stalked by a starkers Laura Harris. How will he survive? I mean, she’s all naked and everything! When I worked on a kids’ TV show, the two 14-year-olds were big Josh Hartnett fans, and were appalled that I hadn’t seen this. “It’s, like, one of the great films!”

In fact, it’s like, not, but who would deny youth its illusions?

Old age, by contrast, often comes with wisdom, so I hope Foster cashed his cheque fast on this one. The movie deals with some kind of curse, elaborated at such tedious length that one forgets how it started before the exposition is finished. But the result is a naked girl in a skull mask who goes around killing people, and can apparently breathe underwater, or maybe she doesn’t breath at all. Lots of aquatic action here, which seems to be the main sales pitch: JAWS, with the roles of predatory fish and skinny dipper kind of reversed. But this movie was made in 1974, before JAWS. There’s a lesson there: never make a bizarre variant on a box office smash BEFORE the box office smash has happened.

Moments of interest: the opening titles don’t start until about seven minutes in, and don’t end until fifteen minutes in. And the movie is barely over an hour, that’s over a fifth of the running time eaten up by credits. Foster may be the archetypal “guy who’s forgotten more about filmmaking than we’ll ever know” at this point. I was half expecting more credits to start halfway, or for the film to suddenly end and begin again, or for an entire scene to play out upside down. Once such basic structural sense has been jettisoned, it seems like anything’s possible.

Or nothing.

The other moment of interest is the scene where the two unappealing male leads and the somewhat depressed Filipino bikini girl entertain themselves by drunkenly chucking lit sticks of dynamite about on a beach. This little divertissement is served up so blithely, without any explanation, that I figure it’s something Foster, a much-traveled man-of-the-world, we are told, may have indulged in himself. It is at least marginally less suicidal than John Huston’s favourite pastime in Mexico, a variant on Russian roulette: load a pistol, pull the hammer back, and throw it at the ceiling. You have two chances of getting killed, as does anybody else in the room (or anybody passing by outside): once when the pistol hits the ceiling, and once when it hits the floor.

I explained this gag to David Wingrove, who thought it sounded pretty good fun. “Much better than Russian roulette. Russian roulette always seems so bleak.”

“You’re going to be hearing the word ‘panties’.”

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Who Killed Charlie Chan?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2008 by dcairns

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MR. MOTO’s GAMBLE is an odd entry in the Moto series, in which German/Hungarian actor Peter Lorre plays Japanese detective Kinsaro Moto. It’s odd because it’s really a Charlie Chan movie, from the series in which Swedish actor Warner Oland played Chinese detective Charlie Chan, only Chan has been excised and replaced with Moto. Why?

The DVD supplemental documentary tells the story, which I pass on here at no extra charge.

After making approximately 9,000,000,000 Charlie Chan films for 20th Century Fox, Oland was tired. He was also alcoholic, miserable, and mid-divorce. He didn’t want to make CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE, and his reluctance took the form of a strange protest. He refused to work on Stage 6 at the Fox studio, claiming that the facility was outdated and draughty and he feared catching pneumonia. Fox argued that this complaint was reasonless: the stage was identical to all the others, and since the sets for CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE had been built there, that’s where the film would be shot.

Oland insisted, and the Screen Actors Guild were called in to negotiate. Money was being lost while the sets stood empty. Eventually a compromise was reached: Oland would return to work, but on Stage 7. But the wily Fox had a trick up their sleeve: rather than tear down and reconstruct those bulky sets, they simply repainted the number 6 outside with the number 7. Chan showed up for work and apparently never realised he was on the exact same stage as before. So the studio were proved correct: the different sound stages were identical.

But a day or so later, Oland took off again, and production was shut down. Desperate to get some kind of use out of the script and sets, Fox chiefs eventually recast Chan with Moto, simply erasing one name and substituting another in the script, just as they had renamed Stage 6. Moto was now hanging around with Chan’s Number One Son, still played by Keye Luke, and dispensing pithy eastern proverbs, just like Chan. Rather than being mysterious and a master of disguise, Moto was now ever-reliable, but with an impish sense of humour. A brief scene was inserted at random to allow him to demonstrate his judo skills and love of cats, but that’s as far as the rewriting went.

Against the odds, Oland’s mood improved as his divorce was settled, and he prepared to return to his most famous role. The studio were glad to have him back. He decided to go on holiday before beginning his next Chan picture, but once he got to Sweden for a rest, the actor quickly became ill with pneumonia. He never recovered.

Fox eventually replaced the cherubic Swede with a creepy Scot, Sidney Toler, but we are left to ponder Oland’s strangely prophetic sense of impending doom, and wonder about the fatal Stage 6, and the persistent strain of bronchial pneumonia that tracked him across the globe…

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A young Persian gardener said to his Prince:

‘Save me! I met Death in the garden this morning, and he gave me a threatening look. I wish that tonight, by some miracle, I might be far away, in Ispahan.’

The Prince lent him his swiftest horse.

That afternoon, as he was walking in the garden, the Prince came face to face with Death. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘did you give my gardener a threatening look this morning?’

‘It was not a threatening look,’ replied Death. ‘It was an expression of surprise. For I saw him here this morning, and I knew that I would take him in Ispahan tonight.’

~ Jean Cocteau, The Look of Death.

That Man Chan

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2008 by dcairns

This can only be a preliminary report, as I’ve just watched three of the approximately nine billion CHARLIE CHAN movies produced by 2oth Century Fox, and none of the eighty trillion made by Monogram. Fox churned out their Chans until star Warner Oland (the Swedish Chinaman) had a nervous breakdown and then died and was replaced by Sidney Toler (the Scots-American Chinaman) who followed the series over to Poverty Row studio Monogram, continuing to work on it until he too died.

Those things’ll kill you!

The films I watched were CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON, CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS. They all had variations in their treatment of the series concept, as well as both similarities with and differences from the MR MOTO films produced concurrently at Fox.

Similarities, apart from the basic concept of an oriental detective played by a white European in yellowface — both ‘tecs spend a lot of time on ocean liners. I know it was a major way a lot of folks got around, and both investigators are globe-trotting kinds of guys, but this got kind of ridiculous. Chan was on ocean liners in two films, and delayed a trip in order to be in LONDON, whereas in one MOTO (I think it was THANK YOU) the little guy barely seemed to get ashore.

Also, the characters are essentially polite. This seems to be a stereotypical reading of the Eastern character, but it’s not necessarily an inaccurate one. It only applies to certain situations, though — one can’t really describe a lot of Japanese military behaviour in WWII as “polite”. But the characters, though stereotyped, are utterly positive. No messing about with tragic flaws here, the guys are super-smart, nice, always on the side of right, and unfailingly gracious. Admittedly, Moto does tend to kick the crap out of people, but only in self-defense and the pursuit of justice.

As I said before, Chan’s stories tend towards the whodunnit, and Moto’s are more like capers, with all kinds of crimes going on. This means they don’t need to spend time setting up complex crimes to be solved, but can begin with Moto already running about in disguise and getting up to all kinds of hi-jinks. The Chan films, as befits their portly, middle-aged hero, are more sedentary and sequential. Also, Chan isn’t such a loner — he’s a family man with twelve kids, various of whom appear to assist or interfere with Chan’s investigations.

The key son is KeyeLuke, as Number One Son. Luke is a real Chinese-American, somehow spring from the yellowface loins of the Nordic Oland, which is kind of weird. It could be argued that this casting is somewhat racist in itself, since the genius Oland is white and the blundering Luke is oriental. But he only blunders because he’s young, there’s no suggestion that he’s inherently dim. Teenagers were always a bit dopey in classic-era Hollywood films, since the films were made for everybody, not just teenagers like today, so they didn’t have to flatter adolescents. Anyhow, Luke is certainly more dignified than the characters played by the likes of Pat Wayne in John Ford films. He’s also allowed to have a normal teenage sex drive, spending most of SHANGHAI on the phone to his girlfriend. This struck me as fairly progressive for a minority character in a film of this era.

As an actor, Luke isn’t at this point as relaxed and solid as he became in later performances, but he’s great fun. It’s a performance of wide-eyed enthusiasm comparable to Burt Ward’s Robin in the Batman TV show. Play-acting and make-believe rather than realism.

I was quite touched by the little moments of sentiment the filmmakers’ always take care to insert — while Chan is gently scornful of most of No. 1 Son’s efforts at detection, there’s an underlying affection and unforced sweetness. I don’t find this kind of thing in most contemporary popular culture products. The old NANCY DREW movies have it too.

The most striking of the three films I saw was CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES, mainly because it turned out to be the Berlin Olympics. You know, in Nazi Germany. So that explains why a Chinese detective can be seen mooching around the background of Leni Riefenstahl’s OLYMPIA. I always wondered.

(Adding to the historic nature of the story, Charlie travels to Germany on the Hindenburg.)

Of course, the film eschews all politics. Charlie clashes gently with the local police detective, who’s a bit dumb and arrogant, but has a good heart. In general, he’s treated far better by the Nazis than he was in London in CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON (Brit attitudes to Chan include superstitious fear among the lower orders, and supercilious disdain among the toffs). The movie is a great example of Hollywood’s appeasement of the Reich. At one point the characters drive under a banner, which has clearly had a giant swastika optically removed — but it’s uncertain if this was done for the original release, or to protect modern sensibilities. If the latter, it’s kind of a disgrace.

I enjoyed the three films and look forward to seeing more. They may just be escapist time-wasters, but there’s plenty of entertainment and historic interest to be had from them, and Oland and Luke are both very charming. I’m assuming, as the series progresses, Mr. Chan will find himself up against Nazi agents at some point, and he can make up for his strangely amicable attitude to those guys earlier on.

What’s going on here?