29 January 2008 | jemmytee
Clunky storyline and dated attitudes, but surprisingly fun
Ah, the Thirties. What could be more elegant and enjoyable than an ocean liner to the Orient, with two heartbreakingly beautiful people having a shipboard romance while criminal intrigue sort-of-kind-of goes on around them and they are watched over by a genial Japanese man who may or may not be a good guy? And that's really about all there is to the slapdash plot of the first movie in the Mr. Moto series. Yes, there's something about diamond smuggling and murder, but the main point of this story seems to be to introduce the world to the polite but dangerous gentleman from Japan.
And that is something that surprised me about this little movie (it clocks in at under 70 minutes) -- just how dangerous Mr. Moto is. Throughout the first hour he is presented as someone who's more interested in making an allegiance with the smugglers than stopping them. The movie begins with him in disguise looking into the San Francisco end of the smugglers, seeing -- but not reporting -- a murdered body and getting away so he can quietly head for Shanghai. He shows he's a black belt in jiu-jitsu by tossing a few disrespectful drunks around, including the son of the man who owns the ocean liner he's traveling on. And he kills a killer in such a way that no one can find the body...then calmly, albeit a bit sadly, continues his secretive journey. It's not until the last few minutes of the movie that his real purpose and superior intelligence is revealed. To have a Japanese man out-thinking all the sneaky Caucasian minds around him is really quite startling for 1937, considering the casual xenophobia of the time.
"Think Fast, Mr. Moto" may be an obvious attempt to capitalize on the hugely popular (and usually much better) "Charlie Chan" series of mysteries, but it works very well in its own right. Peter Lorre does a fine job (of course) pretending to be Japanese, but something that I've never understood is why Thomas Beck never got to be big in Hollywood. He has such a natural grace in front of the camera, and he's extremely good-looking. The same holds for Virginia Field, though she did have more of a career than he. The production values are above average for a "B" movie and the pace is relatively brisk. If they'd just done a better job with the script, it could have been on the same level as "Charlie Chan in Shanghai." But as it is, it's still surprisingly fun.