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