Thursday, 7 April 2011

Mr. Moto’s Gamble

Memento Moto

Mr. Moto’s
1938 USA
Directed by
James Tinling
20th Century Fox
Region 1

Well that was an interesting little movie experience.

Courtesy of the numerically challenged 20th Century Fox, I cracked open the second of their two Mr. Moto boxed editions and began by watching this one, the third entry in the series. Yes, that’s right maths fans. Due to the what-the-fudge-are-you-smoking nature of the people who put together and marketed the two Mr. Moto Collections, Box 1 contains movies 1, 2, 4 and 5 (but not in that order, just to confuse you even more) and Box 2 contains 3, 6, 7 and 8 (again, not in that order). Fans of sequential numbering systems and chronological continuity had best avoid Fox box sets unless they want to wade into the research first, methinks.

Anyway... Mr. Moto’s Gamble, the third in the Japanese detective’s film series as played by Peter Lorre... is certainly the oddest of the Moto films I’ve seen so far and, I suspect, certainly the most “out of kilter” one I’ll see. Why? Well because it’s a Charlie Chan movie, that’s why! No really! It’s quite literally a Charlie Chan movie... here’s the story behind the movie as I understand it.

Warner Oland’s Chan Movies were making big money but Oland was drinking more and going through a messy divorce with his wife. He walked off set a couple of times on his new film Charlie Chan at the Ringside due to disputes with the studio over the condition of the working environment and only the best part of 3 days were in the can before the plug was pulled.

When it became clear that Oland wasn’t going to come back easily, Fox retooled it to be the third in their new Mr. Moto series. And by retool I do mean literally cross out a couple of names on the script and hand it back to everybody to carry on filming... there’s nothing like subtlety when rewriting a script - and this was nothing like subtlety. Filming resumed, the film was released to critical acclaim and good box office, Oland was wooed back to Fox and signed for three more Chan pictures but before starting work on them he went to spend time with his mother in Sweden and promptly died from Bronchial Pneumonia... enter Sidney Toler!

So what does that mean for Mr. Moto’s Gamble, as Charlie Chan at the Ringside quickly became?

Well, it meant quite a lot actually in terms of the tone of the film and, also, a character crossover from the Chan series. In the Moto films which came before and after this, and as I’ve noted in my reviews, Moto is nothing like the Charlie Chan character. He doesn’t do things according to the law, quite often killing a suspect to further the investigation of the truth in the most ruthless manner while “getting away with it” and often getting into quite physical Judo fights with any opponents stupid enough to take him on...

But not in this one. This one, while he does retain quite a bit of the mannerisms and character of the Moto we have known from before (Peter Lorre is too great an actor to let that kind of stuff slip) he is more Chan like in his detachment from the physical action... something Oland’s Chan usually left to Keye Luke, playing Lee Chan (Number One Son). A couple of Judo sequences have been hastily injected into this one but you can tell that these weren’t part of the original set up and they kind of hang about on the fringes of the movie and could easily be spliced in independently of the main narrative.

Another Chan characteristic is the amazing aphorisms that the Chan actors always delivered. Like I said, they just crossed out the Chan name in the script and wrote in Moto’s because on any number of occasions, Peter Lorre delivers, in his own style, a number of those little sayings that make Chan fans smile.

Thirdly, but by no means lastly, we have Keye Luke. Here we have a crossover movie created by the rewrite, because in this movie Keye Luke is in it and, yes, he is playing Charlie’s Number One Son Lee Chan... Moto promises to write to Lee’s illustrious father to cover for him coming to Moto’s detective lessons.

So yeah, the film plays out like a standard Charlie Chan film but this is a Chan film from the Oland era... and as such it is top notch.

There’s some great stuff shoehorned into this tale of murder at the boxing ring, including one of the most creative newspaper montages I’ve yet seen in one of these old black and whites. Instead of spinning or dissolving or wiping, in one sequence the newspaper front pages are cut into four horizontal strips. Four rectangles which are rotated to bring up the next newspaper edition on the next rectangular strip-face. Brilliant and creative stuff from when it was cheaper to do stuff in-camera.

Also, there are some amazing faces turning up in this one. It wasn’t long after I’d recognised that the thug/heavy standing in the background and occasionally saying a few words was a pre-fame Lon Chaney Jr, that I realised another major player in this movie was John Hamilton... who a decade or two later would be filling the shoes of Perry White opposite George Reeve’s in the hit TV show The Adventures of Superman. And then, if that wasn’t enough, you’ve got Ward Bond and Chan regular character actor Howard Huber playing this movies frustrated police inspector! Brilliant stuff. And then.... and then I recognised that John Hamilton’s employee was played by... oh, heck I don’t even know his name. But he was the financial clerk in the Bailey’s Buildings and Loan in It’s A Wonderful Life. What a great cast!

Mr. Moto’s Gamble is a great film, if not a great deal like a regular Mr. Moto film. Definitely one to watch if you’re a fan of either the Chan or Moto series though. It’s definitely entertaining in that way that only a pre-1940s, cynical but funny detective movie can be. Check this one out if you only ever want to watch one of them. Looking forward to watching the sixth in the series sometime next week!

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