Great stuff, this vodka. It gets you drunk, did you know that? Brilliant.
I had recourse to the bottle, left behind by visiting thespians, since Fiona was getting her roots done with our friend Nicola (officially deemed “too disturbing for Channel 4”) and while they were assailing each others’ hair with “colourants” I thought I’d distract myself with what turned out to be a vodka-fuelled triple-bill of MR. MOTO movies.
Peter Lorre starred as Japanese importer/detective Kentaro Moto eight times between 1937 and 1939 (whew!). My discs had a few extras as well so I supplemented my viewing with an interview with Lorre’s stunt double Harvey Parry, and a meditation on the historical significance of the man Moto. The thesis seemed to be that casting the sinister-of-aspect Peter Lorre as Moto was a way of acknowledging the mixed feelings had about the emergence of Japan on the world scene.
Wow, blogging drunk is weirdly EFFORTFUL (hic!).
I think the documentary mouthpieces had it slightly wrong about Moto. One weird thing about the films I saw was that in all three (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO; THANK YOU, MR. MOTO; MR. MOTO’S VACATION) there were Germanic actors playing Russians: Sig Ruman, twice, and Victor Varconi, once. So the suspicion formed that in a strange way, casting Lorre as Japanese was a way of de-Germanising him. The effect of a German playing Japanese, while obviously disturbing by the time of Pearl Harbour (he’s a one-man Axis!), was basically to render the actor and character as an all-purpose exotic. His precise ethnicity is blurred.
(Sig Ruman appears once with beard — prompting loud cries of “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!” and references to “Concentration Camp Erhardt” from Nicola and I — and once without, exposing a bare and raddled chin like an old man’s bottom.)
The Ruman chin in all its naked awfulness. Get that thing behind a beard!
My, the films are entertaining, though (and you don’t even need to be drunk). Lorre, slim and rather beautiful, but equipped with jangling European teeth, is elegant and always surprising as Moto. If you can forgive the horrible idea of casting a white man in yellowface, that is. Assisted by Harvey Parry, Moto deploys a peculiar variety of ju-jitsu that frequently culminates in a sock in the jaw or a blast from a small-calibre pistol. Like Sam Spade, Moto follows his own code of honour, which makes him worthy of our respect, and always capable of being surprising. For the first couple of films, the writers definitely play with the idea of Moto as a suspicious character — might he turn out to be the villain? He does not.
That sexy, sexy man.
Lorre adds to Moto’s surprising qualities with his own. His line readings are always unique, seductive, playful, sardonic, melancholic or slightly tipsy, and it’s not always easy to tell which. Plus there are the great luminous eyes, round and wet as soap bubbles. They appear to be enlarged by his glasses, until he takes his specs off and we realise that his particular googliness owes nothing to magnification.
The MOTO films are swift, getting the job done in just over an hour, and follow a harum-scarum, making-it-up-as-they-go-along system of plotting which may well be more carefully worked-out than appears. And they’re decorated with guest stars. The three I saw had John Carradine (being Spanish), Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer (being German), Lionel Atwill (being Atwill) and J. Carroll Naish (not sure what he was trying to be). Also Joseph Schildkraut, a man whose Hollywood career went into mysterious decline after he let it be known that Louis B. Mayer moved his lips while signing his name.
Unlike the CHARLIE CHAN series, also produced by 20th Century Fox and at the same time, Moto’s adventures tend not to be whodunnits, but more generalised capers, filled with action, plots, reverses and disguises. They’re a bit more feverish and non-Cartesian, although just about possible to follow if you haven’t had a skinful. Rather than slowly winding themselves up by way of exposition and scene-setting, they begin in media res, with violent action which won’t be explained for several reels, after an apparently unrelated plot is already in full swing. The Chan films are slightly stiffer, like their middle-aged hero, though occasional propulsive track-ins at dramatic moments, and aberrant moments of comic surrealism, keep them frisky enough.
All three of the films I watched were directed by Norman Foster, who also made JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, and Shadowplay favourite KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (A.K.A. STEAM THE SEMEN OFF MY SPATS, and BLAST THE LINT OUT MY NAVEL). In interview, stuntman Parry calls Foster “a very serious man”. God, making those films must have been hell for him.
Our hero throws a ship’s steward to his death in a fit of pique.
Years later, a director asked Peter Lorre for a retake. “I only do this shit once,” the actor slurred back.
“Then how did you survive all those MR. MOTO films?”
“Easy. I was on drugs.”