Bad Movie of the Week

One of a series

I can’t knock these movies too much, because I used to watch them all the time on late night TV. This is one of the Mr. Moto series, starring Peter Lorre, a Hungarian actor playing the part of a Japanese crime detective. Now that you’ve have gotten past that you’re ready for anything.

This came out in 1939, a year that would have considerable significance a few months after this hit the screens in January. Viewers knowing the history cringe at the irony.

I watched this on Amazon Prime Video, where I obtained the screen shots. Technical information is from Wikipedia, which does not list the production company—Twentieth Century Fox by the screen titles. All that said, the first thing noticeable is the low quality of the print. I’m guessing this is due to neglect, since 1939 standards were far above this. Here is a brief plot outline.

The European military situation in Europe is getting dicey, and the Brits and the French are planning a joint naval operation. A flotilla of French warships is headed for Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal. Their arrival must be delayed for three days. It’s important this information be kept secret. There are forces about (we know who they are) that would like to disrupt British-French cooperation.  Aboard a liner landing at Port Said is the wife, Madame Delacour (Margaret Irving), of the French admiral. She receives a telegram telling her he will be late. A spy, Eric Norvel (George Sanders), stands close by as Mme. Delacour receives the message. He must find out when the French fleet will arrive. He and his Axis friends are planning a surprise party.

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A fake Mr. Moto (Teru Shimada) is aboard the ship. The spy ring quickly identifies him as Moto and hustles him into a waiting car for a final ride.

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Mme. Delacour and her daughter attend a variety show, where a principal attraction is ventriloquist. Fabian the Great (Ricardo Cortez). He is head of the spies.

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Also attending is the real Kentaro Moto (Peter Lorre), who eavesdrops on a meeting of the spies.

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A bumbling English tourist is Rollo Venables (Robert Coote), who drops into Moto’s (in disguise) antique shop and ultimately becomes mired in the intrigue with Moto.

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Finally, finally, Norvel gets Mme. Delacour and her daughter out on a tour of the sights, where he is able to weasel out that the French fleet will be arriving late.

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It’s bad news for one of the spy ring. The one called Danforth (John Carradine) is actually a British agent working with Moto. He is discovered and disposed of by being sent down to the bottom of the harbor in a diving sphere and cut loose.

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Teaming up, Moto and Venables lose a fist fight with the spies and are dumped into the harbor in separate burlap bags. Fortunately, Moto has secreted a knife blade, and cuts them both free. It’s time for Moto to unsettle the spies’ plot while Venables goes for the cops.

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Norvel dives to the bottom to push the plunger and set of the sabotage charges, while Fabian stays on the pier, pumping air to him and watching as the French fleet approaches. Moto foils the plot by swimming underwater, smashing Norvel’s face plate, and causing him to drown. Swift justice. Then Moto pushes the plunger, detonating the charges prematurely. We see the Frenchies turn away sharply in formation.

Back up on the dock, Moto does fisticuffs with Fabian, but to no avail. Fabian’s English girlfriend finally figures out which side of this she is on, and she plugs Fabian, who falls into the drink.

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And that’s all of the movie. Since war with Germany was incipient, the producers decided against revealing the Nazi basis of the sabotage plot. All that pretense was to be discarded a mere eight months later.

Beyond the low quality of this print, the plot is thin, and acting and direction are amateurish by today’s standards. Within the past few weeks I watched the six seasons of the series NUMB3RS and noted the general quality of a modern television production. It may be unfair to compare productions nearly 80 years apart, but even in 1939 there was a better standard.

The plot shows some obvious failures. For example:

The spies shit nails trying to figure out when the French fleet is arriving. When they do find out, the arrival time is known only to the day. They could have obtained this result by getting ready as soon as possible (laying the charges), then watching the horizon for the French fleet.

The spies discover Danforth is an agent. To dispose of him they waste an expensive and potentially useful diving sphere to get rid of him. They had him out on the boat. A knife to his throat and something to weigh down the body would have sufficed at the cost of scuttling dramatic interest.

Fabian is the master saboteur. His team has planted all those explosives in the harbor. To set them off it’s necessary to dive to the bottom off the dock and push the plunger at the right time. Why not just leave the plunger up on the dock, cover it with a gunny sack if necessary, and push when the fleet is in position?

The spies need to dispose of Moto and Venables. What do they do? They truss them up, place them in weighted bags, and dump the whole business off the dock. Didn’t think to cut their throats first?

No, very little of this is believable. The plot is a device contrived to string together a number of dramatic scenes and ultimately to give viewers (British and Americans, not Germans) something to feel good about.

This is the sixth of nine Mr. Moto films. Peter Lorre starred in the first eight, ending the same year this came out. Due to the incipient conflict with Japan, the Japanese character of Moto, even as played by a Hungarian, became unpalatable. The final Mr. Moto film was The Return of Mr. Moto, in 1965. Peter Lorre died in 1964.

Bad Movie of the Week

A few months ago my favorite cable TV movie channel, Turner Classic Movies, ran The Falcon series of movies on Saturday mornings, which was appropriate. These are straight B films, barely making that grade. I was not able to capture the entire set on DVD, but I need to review those that I did. This is the sixth of the series, produced by RKO Pictures in 1943.

Movie Poster

Movie Poster

The title role is played by Tom Conway (see the poster above), and here is an interesting bit. When the first Falcon movie came out the role was played by George Sanders. If you have been following this blog you will recall that Sanders played one of the foreign correspondents bent on exposing a Nazi spy ring in the movie Foreign Correspondent. Sanders got tired of playing B movies, so in a film titled The Falcon’s Brother The Falcon gets shot, and his brother, played by Tom Conway, takes over. In real life Conway and Sanders were brothers.

So I didn’t get to see all the series, but from what I did see I got the following:

  • The Falcon is a freelance detective, possibly with a dark background. He seems to have great talents as a thief, and he is on close terms with the police, who continually want to arrest him for the crime that he is investigating.
  • He has a pretty girlfriend, who is also a pushy newspaper reporter.
  • He has a sidekick named Goldie, who has a criminal background, looks like a thug, seems superficially stupid, but has great talents that are continually brought into play.
  • Each movie starts with a beautiful woman barging into The Falcon’s life with a desperate plea for help and convincing The Falcon to get involved in her case.
  • Each movie ends with the Falcon preparing to exit stage right to make whoopie with his girlfriend when a beautiful woman comes barging in with a desperate plea for help.

This film is obviously set in New York City. We know this by the fake scene of a tug boat chugging up the East River beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Falcon’s man servants, including Goldie, are guarding his bedroom door while he tries to sleep off a terrible hangover. A beautiful woman comes barging in through the French doors desperately pleading for The Falcon’s help. She has a gun in case he is thinking of not taking her case. She is Mia Burger, played by Rita Corday. She speaks with a foreign accent. The Falcon takes her case.

It’s all a ruse to implicate The Falcon in a bank robbery. Sweet Mia tells The Falcon that her brother is missing, then she takes him to where her brother is. (???) If she knows her brother is in the club at 333 2nd Avenue, then why does she need the Falcon’s help? The Falcon falls for the trap, and when he probes into a back room, as directed by sweet Mia, he is knocked on the head after which he comes to out in the country in the back seat of his car, which has in the mean time been used in the bank robbery and now has bullet holes in its back side. The police have the license number and are searching for The Falcon.

I’m not going to unroll the entire story. This movie came out in 1943, so it’s likely you have seen it already. I just have a few comments. This is 1943, and America is up to its armpits in World War Two. We see all sorts of allusions to the war:

  • War bonds worth $250,000 were stolen in the heist, and there is a lot of talk about how they are a safe investment—the serial numbers are kept on record, and only the original purchaser can redeem them. Several times it’s mentioned that the sale of war bonds is a great help to the war effort.
  • Rationing features in the dialog at numerous points. The police detective will have to burn some brownies points to replace a tire on his car.
  • There are allusions to foreign agents, although culprits in the plot are just ordinary American criminals.
  • The thieves plan to sell the stolen bonds to unsuspecting war refugees, who presumably do not know the bonds cannot be sold.

Ted Turner is a self-made billionaire, and somewhat over 30 years ago he began looking for a way to spend his money. He began to acquire the rights to large film libraries owned by Hollywood production companies, and he has since obtained licensing for additional libraries. This has been a boon to advocates of motion pictures as art and culture. TCM has in effect rescued a vast body of cinematic art from the dust heap. With the advent of digital imaging these works are now preserved in what has the potential of being a permanent life.

Rescue can only go so far, however. This copy was just barely rescued. It’s obvious at least one point in the film that the master print has been broken and repaired. I watched my copy in the early hours before all my systems were on line. Even so I was startled into consciousness by the sudden jump in the action as one of the crooks (disguised as a nurse aiding a potential victim of the swindle) enters bearing something for his patient. One second he is entering from the background on the right, and the next second he is standing right beside the patient. Digital manipulation can accomplish a lot, removing noise from the sound track and scratched from the film, but it has its limits.

I have a few more of the series, and I will post reviews in the coming weeks. If you’re really interested in the plot I will host a showing on movie night at my house or possibly at the monthly movie night in Pflugerville. Contact me if you want to borrow my copy.