Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Favorites - Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto

I gotta admit, I love Mr. Moto.

It's a guilty pleasure.  I don't really care that it's politically incorrect having a German actor play a Japanese spy. Or that they are cheesy b-movies.

I haven't read the books. They're not in print. From what I hear, I would probably like the character of Moto even more than I do in the movies. In the books, I'm told, he is my favorite type of character -- not the protagonist, but an "impact character" of the paragon type, who lurks in the background and saves the day.

But I gotta tell you, I love Peter Lorre, too.  Always have.  And the character of Mr. Moto, as presented, meshes completely with the Lorre persona.  A small, diffident, polite character who is a lot more dangerous than people think he is.

The fun of this series is that, unlike the other Asian detectives of the time, Mr. Moto is an action hero.  Which not only goes against the stereotypes of the time, it also goes against the stereotype of Peter Lorre.  He's a secret agent and international law enforcement agent, who goes undercover, and fights badguys and has chase scenes.

But mostly he's just smarter than everyone in the room, and a bit of a show off, though he pretends modesty.  (Which, of course, does fit the stereotype.)

He's also a master of disguise, and one of my favorite bits, of course, is when he disguises himself as ... an odd little German gentleman!  Which he has done in at least two of the pictures.

This is in contrast to, say, Mr. Wong -- who is played by Boris Karloff.  Just as Lorre plays Moto as a variation of his own persona (small, watchful, sometimes disguised as simpering or sniveling or sneaky -- with broken English), Karloff plays Wong as one of his own personas (large, patrician, well-educated, no accent at all).  I don't recall Mr. Wong ever going in disguise -- he's a thinker.  He's someone who directs a case, and questions suspects, and looks at evidence.  If there is an adventure component to any Mr. Wong mysteries, the action is provided by others.

The Mr. Moto movies themselves are not quite B-movies.  Yes, they are well produced with a decent cast, but the plots are just excuses to throw in whatever spy/thriller tropes they have lying around.  The humor depends on whichever character actor they have on cast as sidekick at the moment.  (Often it's a silly English sidekick, but sometimes it'll be a cringe-worthy negro servant.  These are not politically correct movies.)  Mr. Wong seems to be a little more down-scale, with actors you've never heard of to go with the formula scripts, and the cheapest sets.

What do I learn, as a writer and a student of story, from Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong?

(After all, if a guilty pleasure is still a pleasure, then something MUST make them that way.)

Been thinking about that, and I'm still not sure, but here's what I've got so far:

B-movies are a kind of folklore -- they follow patterns and tropes the way fairytales and myths do. And they do it so broadly that you can often see the wheels cranking.  Also with a dated b-movie, it's easier to tell the real tropes from the fashions of the time it was made.  Here are some tropes:

1.) We love to see underdogs who are not really underdogs at all.
  When Moto fools somebody because of their prejudices, that is satisfying now, and was even more satisfying back in the day.

2.) A good actor, used well, shines above the material.  In particular both Lorre and Karloff bring a presence to the character that isn't fully in the script.  With Lorre it's an edge -- that touch of controlled hostility that is in his other roles.  With Karloff it's a sense of benevolent power that justifies the utter confidence people put in him.

Writers should study such acting to understand characterization, and the subtleties involved in creating a rich character even in pulpy material.

3.) You don't have to have one of those oh-so-hip stories full of irony and "meta" references to have a little fun with irony.  Just a tiny bit of it can pick up a shallow little story. (A little German actor, pretending to be a Japanese spy pretending to be a little German professor?  Priceless.)

4.) As with children's fiction, sometimes the real fun is in taking silly things seriously.  And that may mean not just suspending your disbelief, but sending it on a rocket to the moon.

The value in that last bit can't be overstated: a writer has to capture the courage of childhood, that ability to go with the outrageous and the silly, and the irrational, in order to discover new things.  That's a part of what creativity is, to shake off the guilty part of the pleasure so you can find the pleasure.

Both Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong are available DVD, mostly in collections. IMHO, they aren't quite worth the investment of a whole set, but you should be able to rent them. I think one of the better Mr. Motos The Mysterious Mr. Moto. (Which is at Amazon in this collection.)  Also Mr. Moto's Last Warning, which has George Sanders in it as one of the villains.  (Any picture with George Sanders gets extra points.)  That's in a different collection.  You might find them on YouTube, because it might be in the public domain.  (A lot of b-pictures of the period are.)

Some Mr. Wong flicks are available free on Hulu (like Mr. Wong, Detective), and also via Amazon Prime Instant Video.  (NOTE: if you find a Mr. Wong movie staring Bela Lugosi, it's a different series -- Mr. Wong is the villain.)

See you in the funny papers.


T.K. Marnell said...

I get so frustrated sometimes when I see a movie or show with a charismatic leading man/lady and realize that I can't capture all of the same magic on paper. We can try--we can describe looks and mannerisms and voices--but there's a visceral, subconscious reaction to seeing and hearing charismatic people on screen or in real life that we just can't tap into. To get the audience on a hero's side, a filmmaker just has to dress him well, train the camera on his handsome face, and play certain music in the background. Writing down that a man is handsome and fashionable just doesn't do the same trick.

Switching tracks: I haven't seen the Mr. Moto movies, but I don't think a German actor playing a Japanese spy is any worse than all of the Chinese actors playing Japanese people in modern television and movies. Pick a Japanese, Korean, or any other East Asian character, and I'll bet you ten bucks the actor is the second generation offspring of immigrants from Hong Kong :p

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, if you try to capture an actor's technique you will be frustrated, because acting and writing techniques are different -- and capturing something visual in words is no different with actors than with ordinary people.

The thing that writers can learn from actors is their characterization. Unlike real life, it's the job of the actor to display what is going on inside, to betray motivations, and display emotions.

So when an actor's eyes flick to the left, in a small but powerful and visceral commentary on his state of mind... our job is not to describe how his eyes move, how narrow they are, how fast they move and move back. Nor is our job to use that reaction as the same kind of "powerful moment" -- visual power and verbal power do not do the same thing, so we can't get the same effect via pure translation.

Our job is to capture what the actor expressed with that move. It might be as simple as, "He glanced at Jim" or "He glanced away." Or even, "He twitched."

I was going to do a post on this, I may pull out the notes and do it yet.

As for Mr. Moto's political incorrectness -- the thing to remember about that time is that it wasn't a case of picking a convenient actor. Asian actors were not allowed to star in movies for white people. This was just a general Hollywood thing: movies had to play in the south, and you could get away with a meaty role for someone of color if you had a white person in black-face or brown-face playing the role.

But people of color were kept out of such roles.

Cheryl Morris said...

Hey, thanks for your post on my favorite actor Peter Lorre. As a writer myself, I also appreciate your idea that a novelist can watch actors to see how they develop their characters. None better for that than Peter Lorre! By the way, the "Mr. Moto" novels are available for purchase. You can buy them single as paperbacks or in hard-cover collections. I have read all of them.

The Daring Novelist said...

I'm hoping they'll come out in ebook sometime soon!