Some mighty strange trends have cropped up in films over the years, and the public’s appetite for Asian sleuths played by white dudes in the 1930s is quite the doozy. The most famous example of this is, of course, Charlie Chan, whose massive popularity helped the character chug along in tales of suspense long after the death of creator Earl Derr Biggers. Chan was a success in radio, movies, and eventually television, but the call was out for a new property to strike while the iron was hot and fill a void left by Biggers’ passing. Enter writer John P. Marquand, who supplied mystery buffs with a similar hero in the form of an eccentric little Japanese detective named Mr. Moto. While never becoming the smash that Charlie Chan was, the character enjoyed modest fame and a healthy movie series of his own, which 1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto kicked off in a traditional but nevertheless potboiling fashion.
In the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, a peddler slinks about the side streets and alleyways, carting around some goods to shill. But this is no ordinary huckster — he’s actually Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre), a strange man playing gumshoe and sniffing about for clues to the whereabouts of a smuggling ring. After coming upon a corpse stashed in a storefront, Moto sheds his disguise and boards a freighter bound for Shanghai. There, he makes fast friends with strapping young Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), who soon finds himself falling head over heels for fellow passenger Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). But as romance blooms, Moto continues his quest for the crooks, who may turn out to have ties with Bob’s well-to-do family. Why is Mr. Moto so eager to catch these smugglers? Who sent him on his hunt in the first place? Those answers remain a mystery, but what’s certain is that the closer Moto gets to the head of the gang, the sooner danger seems to seek him out.
Seeing as how Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first in what became an eight-movie franchise, it’s safe to say that our protagonist is a good guy. But the way this flick shrouds his motivations in doubt and makes such an enigma out of him is one of its unexpected strengths. You never know what Mr. Moto is up to, and half the fun is seeing him whip out some unforeseen skill in every new scene, be it performing magic tricks, pulling off jujitsu moves, or concocting a miracle hangover cure. He’s engaged in detective work, yes, but our movie keeps a lid on who’s employing him and what his aims even are until the very end, ensuring the viewer’s interest in what his deal is right up to the big reveal. The writing has a hand in preserving the mystery, but just as responsible (if not a little bit more) is Lorre’s performance, which buries any hints of Mr. Moto’s true goals under a mountain of quirky mannerisms. As with Charlie Chan, Moto uses his enemies’ knack for underestimating him against them, but the peculiar persona and unpredictable behavior he brings to the table results in a more fascinating character.
As for the flick itself, Think Fast, Mr. Moto is nothing you haven’t seen in a truckload of other vintage mysteries. Studios cranked out movies like this at a startling pace, and I’d be lying if I said that this one’s premise doesn’t bleed into that of those swirling about my subconscious. You have the tough-talking thugs, the femme fatale with a heart of gold, and the true mastermind behind all these illegal shenanigans to be unmasked just before the curtain falls. Think Fast, Mr. Moto is very familiar territory, but thanks to director Norman Foster (who helmed six of the eight Moto features and even a few Charlie Chan installments), all of the pieces manage to fall into an entertaining order. Beck and Field are appealing romantic leads, Sig Rumann takes a break from hassling the Brothers Marx to play our imposing main baddie, and we get a surprising amount of close calls and rough-and-tumble brawls to entice our pounding pulses. The movie is a puzzle you’ve pieced together five thousand times before, yet watching it form is still a heck of a treat.
I won’t pretend that some elements of Think Fast, Mr. Moto that were more acceptable upon its release aren’t hard to watch now. The broken English and mildly caricatured physical traits that Lorre incorporates into his performance do entice their fair share of cringes, but at the end of the day, the movie doesn’t have an ounce of hate in its heart, and its eponymous hero is still presented as the smartest guy in the room. While I’ve indulged in dishes like Think Fast, Mr. Moto countless times before, it’s made with enough pluck to make me want to return for seconds.