Following clues around the world

Mr. Moto Collection

Volume 1

(Fox, $60)

Think Fast, Mr. Moto


NO doubt spurred on by the popularity of its Charlie Chan detective thriller franchise, 20th Century Fox in 1936 purchased the rights to the J.P. Marquand short story “The Girl and Mr. Moto” for $7,000 and created a new series revolving around the tale’s lead character, a brilliant Japanese detective, Mr. Moto.

Fox cast Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre in the title role. Lorre, who had made a rather notorious splash as a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 German classic “M,” had been languishing in Hollywood since the mid-30s. But the Moto movies, of which he made eight between 1937 and 1939, made him a star.

In this day and age, to cast a non-Asian in the role would be frowned upon, but during the era of racial inequality, Hollywood rarely cast nonwhite actors in lead roles, as witnessed by Swedish actor Warner Oland playing Charlie Chan and Austrian-born Paul Muni and German Luise Rainer playing Chinese peasants in “The Good Earth.” As with the Chan series, supporting roles were cast with Asian actors.

Lorre doesn’t present a racist portrayal. The diminutive actor brings a menacing undercurrent to his role as the quiet, polite detective -- he also operated an import-export business -- with wire-rimmed glasses who was a master of disguise. Moto was not shy about disposing with the bad guys and handled a knife with more expertise than Norman Bates.

In the first in the series, “Think Fast,” Moto discovers his business is being infiltrated by a group of diamond smugglers and travels from San Francisco to Shanghai to track down the bad guys. Besides Lorre’s compelling performance, the series also benefited from having co-writer-director Norman Foster.

Extras: A restoration comparison and a fun interview with stuntman Harvey Parry, who doubled for Lorre.

Thank You, Mr. Moto

In this installment, also from 1937, Moto is in China and hot on the trail of vicious treasure hunters who are attempting to steal a famous set of scrolls that when put together will reveal the tomb of Genghis Khan and its magnificent treasures. Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine and Sig Ruman also star.


Extras: Restoration comparison and an informative interview with Lorre biographer Stephen D. Youngkin, who discusses the actor’s drug and alcohol addictions and his fear of being typecast as Moto.

Mr. Moto Takes a Chance

The working title of this 1938 entry in the series was “Look Out, Mr. Moto.” Though it was the second one to be produced for the series, it was the fourth one to be released.

In this outing, he masquerades as an archeologist in the Asian jungles while trying to discover which members of a local tribe are planning a military coup. Rochelle Hudson costars as a famous aviator who is also a spy.


The film’s press book stated that director Foster hired a Cambodian-born man to teach the extras the language and the temple set was based on Khmer architecture. Lorre allegedly even learned jujitsu for the film.

Extras: A profile of Sol Wurtzel, the producer of the Moto films.

Mysterious Mr. Moto

In this 1938 installment, Moto goes undercover as a prisoner on Devil’s Island for a year so he can gain the confidence of a ruthless cellmate (Leon Ames) and help the criminal escape. Moto’s plan is to return with the criminal to London and infiltrate the man’s group, the League of Assassins, who are hired to murder diplomats and economic figures.


Henry Wilcoxon and Erik Rhodes also star.

Extras: A profile of director Norman Foster.

-- Susan King