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The first in a series of eight films based on the stories by J.P. Marquand and starring Peter Lorre as the eponymous Japanese secret service agent, Think Fast, Mr. Moto is, in purely technical terms, a good example of what Hollywood could produce at the peak of its power. Like the Warner Oland and Sidney Toler Charlie Chan offerings also made at 20th Century Fox, the Moto films are beautifully photographed and densely detailed. They have the additional appeal of rapid, often violent action. Equal parts adventure and mystery, the Moto films can also boast an unpredictable, not entirely reliable protagonist.

In Think Fast, Moto poses as an import/export merchant trying to uncover a nest of diamond smugglers. Most of the action takes place on a steamer sailing from San Francisco to Shanghai. Moto hooks up with playboy Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), son of the head of the shipping line on which they are traveling, who is being sent on a mysterious errand to China. While there is an obligatory love complication between Bob and fellow passenger Gloria Danton (Virginia Field), the real story centers on Moto’s questionable actions and maneuvers, which include tossing overboard the steward who served both him and Bob.

The killing eventually proves justified (in the story’s terms) but because his motives are murky and he is involved in such questionable activities as tapping phone lines, Moto is never very likable. At best he’s rather unctuous, and Lorre is all too well cast as a dubious, possibly underhanded character. He is not made to look particularly Japanese; his ethnicity is suggested more by excessive politeness punctuated by occasional cultural references. Unlike Charlie Chan, his English is as impeccable as his tailoring, but he is too crafty and ruthless to be trusted.

Norman Foster, the director of this slightly off-putting charade (and four of the other Moto films), has the odd distinction of being known less for the bulk of his work than for the question of how much he contributed to one film, Journey Into Fear, produced by Orson Welles. That question mark can get in the way of recognizing Foster’s skills with exotic, “ethnic” material. In addition to Moto and several of the Chan films, he also worked in Mexico and directed Westerns with emphases on both Native American and Latin ingredients. In Think Fast Foster keeps both the characters and the viewer guessing, racing through the rich Orientalist atmosphere as Moto alternates between subterfuge and jujitsu to unmask the villains.

The problem is that Moto’s ambiguous motives, the elaborate surroundings and clipped execution do not quite gel. The pace assures continued involvement, but it is more a matter of keeping track of the action than actual sympathy. (The love story feels especially gratuitous.) So while Think Fast, Mr. Moto is never as stodgy as Charlie Chan at his most cloyingly pedantic, it is never quite as enjoyable either.