Thursday, 2 June 2011

Mr. Moto's Last Warning

Warning Shots

Mr. Moto's Last Warning 1939 USA
Directed by Norman Foster
20th Century Fox Region 1

And so onto the sixth of the eight Mr. Moto films to star Peter Lorre in the role... although I’ve just found out that although this one was the sixth to be shot, it was actually the seventh to be released. So not sure if I’m technically watching these in the right order again. Doh!

This is another interesting little curio of a movie and the plot resembles a Charlie Chan film I’ve seen, although I don’t remember its name and I’m not sure if it was made before or after this one. This film concerns itself with a plot by a gang of saboteurs wanting to bring the Second World War on by mining the entrance to the Suez Canal.

There’s lots going on here including a fake Mr. Moto sent to ward off suspicion who is murdered in the place of the “real” Mr. Moto (interestingly, the fake Mr. Moto is played by an actual Japanese actor as opposed to the “real” Mr. Moto being played by a Hungarian actor) and the earliest portrayal that I’ve seen, although I’m sure there must be more frequent and earlier examples in cinematic history, of a secret agent being murdered by having his air deliberately cut off while he is beneath the surface of the ocean in a diving bell... interesting stuff.

And as usual there’s the usual plethora of credited and uncredited “I-know-that-guy” actors to look out for if, like me, you find yourself constantly distracted by “actor spotting.” So lets take a look at some of the more interesting members of the cast...

Well, you know you’re in good hands when one of the first uncredited cast members to appear on screen is that “Crown Prince of the Serials” C. Montague Shaw, in a blink and you’ll miss it role which would guarantee he’d keep making those serials for a while longer. You probably best remember him as the King of the Clay People in the brilliant Universal serial Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars but he was mostly covered in heavy make-up for the length of that serial. You will certainly remember his face though, I’m sure, as the eminent Professor Huer opposite Buster Crabbe in another famous Universal serial Buck Rogers, that mostly recycled sets and costumes from that second Flash Gordon serial. Other of his more memorable serial performances would be his roles in Undersea Kingdom, Daredevils of the Red Circle, Zorro’s Fighting Legion and Mysterious Doctor Satan.

John Carradine also makes an appearance as the secret agent assigned to penetrate the treacherous warmongers... it is he who gets murdered in the aforementioned diving bell. You might remember him from many Universal horror movies of the time including a memorable turn in The Mummy’s Ghost and a repeat role as Count Dracula in both House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. He’s always a pretty solid watch.

Next up there’s screen cad George Sanders as a French villain, part of the gang who kill Carradine and seek to spark off an international incident leading to war. I always have problems with George Sanders because I always find him so unlikeable... even when he’s playing a good guy like The Saint or The Falcon. Thankfully, for me, he doesn’t get too much screen time in this one.

There’s also E. E. Clive in a little uncredited role here, whom you may remember as the burgomaster in The Bride of Frankenstein but the real interesting find in this movie is...

Ricardo Cortez playing the villainous and quite ruthless leader of the gang who poses as part of a stage act under the name, Fabian the Great... which is a ventriloquist’s act. Now I’d seen this guy before and remembered him from his starring role as Sam Spade in the very first movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (before the role was forever made synonymous with Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of the character in the third screen version of the novel). I also remember his acting in The Maltese Falcon was pretty much atrocious and, at least in this movie, he comes off a little better than he did in that 1931 movie. Maybe in the eight years in between he just honed his craft and got better (the guy got hired a lot by the looks of things), both before and after his turn as Sam Spade and he must have been one of those actors who found the time adapting to the constraints and demands of “the talkies” a difficult period of adjustment... although he was frequently in work so he must have been well liked.

In this movie he’s got an interesting slant to his performance because, as I said, his “cover” is that he’s a ventriloquist and even though it’s in no way essential to the plot, we do catch him talking to his dummy and becoming over-obsessed with his little wooden pal, as many ventriloquists apparently do. He’s no screen forerunner of Maxwell Frere in Dead of Night or Corky Withers in Magic, but he certainly seems to have acquired the constant habit of getting a little bit too enthusiastic about his “little helper” and this does get a little distracting and inappropriate for one of these fast-paced quickies, even though a part of the films denouement does indeed feature the dummy to a small extent. I guess Mr. Cortez was just exploring his craft and like any good actor, embellishing his performance with little observations about the way these kinds of people act when they’re not performing... good for him though. It at least makes for an interesting performance.

As usual with the Moto films, Peter Lorre’s performance is just brilliant and extremely fast paced, with some good judo throws and fist fights thrown in which help make his character a very different kettle of sushi from his Chinese equivalent Charlie Chan, who is payed homage to in this movie with a theatre showing a print of Charlie Chan in Honolulu starring Warner Oland. Now this is interesting because this film was actually shot and, although Warner Oland was slated to star in that movie, he died while Mr. Moto’s Last Warning was still being made (for more details on the death of Warner Oland, see my review of Mr. Moto’s Gamble here) and Sydney Toler replaced him in the movie, which was released in 1938. This must have caused some consternation to any eagle-eyed Charlie Chan fans who noticed this brief reference back in the day. It also caused consternation to my stupidly rigid sense of film-lore reality when my annoying brain wanted to know how Charlie Chan’s Number One son could be a character in the Moto universe, as depicted in Mr. Moto’s Gamble but then be a fictional character in a later Mr. Moto movie. That doesn’t make sense! But then again... if I can weather the absolutely mind-blowing cross-movie continuity conundrums of the Universal Mummy series then my poor head should be able to handle minor references like this one, I guess.

What more can I say about this movie... other than it has an uncredited but mostly unnoticeable score by David Raskin who made such a splash with his music for Laura. Another fast-paced entry in the Mr. Moto series. Always a good watch.

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