The Mr. Moto Collection

DVD Watch

THE MR. MOTO COLLECTION: Volume One

20th Century Fox, $59.98

The story goes that after seeing Peter Lorre's performance as the compulsive child killer in Fritz Lang's M, an enamored Adolf Hitler wired the actor from Berlin, inviting him to "join the glorious film industry here." "Thanks," responded Lorre from his new bungalow in Hollywood, "but I'm afraid there's room in Europe for only one mass murderer of my ability and yours." An apocryphal bit of Hollywood PR? Probably. (A Hungarian Jew, Lorre had fled Europe to avoid the impending Nazi occupation.) The expatriate actor expected great opportunities in America, and for a while he got them – as the sadistic, Grand Guignol-obsessed surgeon in Mad Love, as Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment – sick puppies all. But Lorre longed to play the good guy, consoling himself between villainous roles with ever-increasing doses of morphine. Relief came in 1937, when 20th Century Fox offered him the lead in Think Fast, Mr. Moto, a quickie attempt to capitalize on the success of the studio's popular Charlie Chan franchise. As the mysterious Japanese detective, archeologist, and government agent, Lorre emanated equal parts lavender and laudanum and was in the best physical shape of his life (which isn't saying much). A fortuitous composite of Lorre's already-distinct onscreen characteristics, Moto was fey and unassuming, ingratiating and irritating, refined yet capable of sudden and ruthless violence. Think Fast struck a chord with moviegoers, and Lorre found himself unhappily cast in a series of profitable yet unchallenging sequels, grinding out a total of eight Motos between 1937 and '39, each with interchangeable titles and plots. They were formulaic B-pictures, but the formula worked: exotic locales, crisp direction by Norman Foster, stellar supporting players (George Sanders, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill), and, above all, Lorre, fastidiously cleaning his fingernails with a discarded dagger, winking conspiratorially at the audience. As war loomed and Asian detectives were replaced by inscrutable spies and kamikaze pilots, Moto was consigned to the vaults alongside Chan. Lorre never did get the parts his talent demanded, sleepwalking through a slew of demeaning supporting roles until his death in 1964, a spent, melancholy helium balloon. But here, he's in his prime: digitally youthful, svelte in a crisp linen suit, and smelling of fresh gardenias.


ALSO OUT Now

Jayne Mansfield Collection (20th Century Fox, $49.98): She may not have reached the heights of her idol, Marilyn Monroe, but she made better movies, including the delirious The Girl Can't Help It, directed by the great Frank Tashlin.

Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection (Warner Home Video, $49.98): Collection of the Gipper's finest, including Kings Row ("Where's the rest of me?") and Knute Rockne All American. What? No Bedtime for Bonzo?

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The Mr. Moto Collection, 20th Century Fox

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