Jul 17, 2007

DVD Review: Stopover Tokyo (1957)

Last year Fox began releasing box sets of some of their classic 1930s pulp fiction-inspired B features, the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. The Mr. Moto movies feature Peter Lorre as a Japanese secret agent/detective character, and they’re as much fun as they are politically incorrect. Moto is more of an action hero than Chan, a judo expert and crack shot who isn’t afraid to kill his enemies. The films manage to keep Moto in constant peril with ingenious traps, outrageous assassination attempts and general B movie mayhem. Fox finished off the cycle earlier this year with Volume 2, but there was still one movie based on a Mr. Moto book by author John P. Marquand that hadn’t been released. Stopover Tokyo (made much later, in 1957) wasn’t included in either box set because it didn’t actually feature Mr. Moto. As I understood it, he had been written out and replaced by an American agent played by Robert Wagner. (The commentary on this disc, however, dispels that notion. The Moto part was reduced and assigned to a random Japanese detective character; Wagner played another role which was expanded from the book.) So when Fox announced earlier this year that Stopover Tokyo would be released as part of their Joan Collins promotion this summer, I was excited. Whether it actually had the Moto character or not, it came from the same source material, so it was bound to be fun, right? Unfortunately, no.

I’m sorry to report that Stopover Tokyo is a slow-moving melodrama that retains none of the thrill-a-minute spirit of the 30s Moto movies. The adaptation may have gained some A-picture prestige with top young studio stars and exotic location photography in Japan, but it lost nearly all of the action and excitement. Still, it’s an interesting curiosity for spy buffs because it came at an odd time, well after the black and white wartime movies about intrepid G-men and reporters cracking nefarious spy rings, but just before James Bond defined the genre for the Cold War, technicolor era.

Robert Wagner plays American Counter-Intelligence agent Mark Fannon, sent to Tokyo to prevent the assassination of the U.S. High Commissioner in Japan. He quickly becomes involved with airline ticket agent Tina (a young and beautiful pre-Dynasty, pre-Hieronymus Merkin, pre-Bitch goddess Collins), who just happens to also be involved with his colleague, fellow Counter-Intelligence man Tony Barrett. Yes, just happens. I kept waiting for one of them to be a double agent, for her to be revealed as a spy, anything like that, but they don’t even dangle the possibility as a red herring. This is essentially a love-triangle melodrama in which two of the participants happen to be spies, and not a story driven by espionage.

Fannon’s investigation proceeds slowly (it’s not even clear what he’s investigating until one of his Japanese contacts is shot dead in a phone booth in one of the film’s better scenes) and hits a lot of stumbling blocks. Unlike Mr. Moto, who found himself in danger at every turn, the only moment of any real jeopardy Fannon finds himself in comes when someone locks him in a steam room and nearly kills him. He doesn’t get out of it through any ingenuity; he just happens to be saved by a spa employee before the scene has even managed to generate any real suspense. Instead of thrills, our hero gets saddled with a young Japanese orphan girl named Koko who constantly refers to herself in the third person and speaks appalling pigeon English. Even though the actress is actually Japanese and the intentions of the American filmmakers are noble, this character comes off as far more racist than Lorre’s respectful portrayal of Moto! The movie hits a low point when Koko performs a long Japanese folk song about a snowflake. (A really long Japanese folk song about a snowflake!)

Wagner doesn’t help matters either. In fact, he’s awful. It’s amazing he ever got the chance to become a real star after this picture. If I didn’t know that he were capable of much better work, I probably would have written him off entirely based on this performance. His delivery is monotonous and mumbled. Perhaps he was attempting a Jack Webb-like, Joe Friday tone, since his character is similarly straight-edged and dedicated to his work, but he just comes off like a jerk. Not a fun-to-watch, hit-on-all-the-ladies Eurospy kind of jerk, the kind you’d do anything to get out of having a drink with. His partner isn’t much better, and it’s impossible to see why Collins falls for either of them, let alone both!

The moral of the story is that spies can’t have relationships; they must sacrifice that luxury for dedication to country. "Even if you ever found a girl and really fell in love," Collins tells her two disappointed suitors, "you’d cheat on her. With your job." It’s not a bad theme, but one that would be explored to much better effect in countless spy movies yet to come.

Stopover Tokyo’s only real asset is its scenery. I’ve always been a sucker for the travelogue element of the Bond films (and miss it in some of the recent, more relentless entries that don’t take the time to revel in their locations) and it’s cool to see technicolor footage of Japan at that time. But the movie is so stodgily directed that even the most exotic locations lack any majesty as presented. As excited as I was to finally see this movie, I’m sorry not to be able to give it a recommendation, but it’s not even worth it for Mr. Moto completists.

Still, no matter how mediocre the film, Fox does another outstanding job with its Cinema Classics line of DVDs. The now-standard restoration comparison proves how much work they put into the picture quality, and they even throw in some nice extras.

The commentary track by film historian Aubrey Solomon is only a partial commentary, and that proves a really good choice. Apparently Solomon didn’t have a whole movie’s worth of comments to share about Stopover Tokyo (and who can blame him?) so he only talks about select scenes. Fortunately, you’re able to skip directly from one bit of talking to the next with the chapter button, so it’s easy to hear the entirety of his discussion fairly quickly. And everything he does say is interesting and apropos. In my opinion, this is vastly preferable to sitting through a meandering feature-length track and hearing a lot of rubbish only to get the same amount of worthwhile information!

Other features include a trailer, an animated stills and poster gallery and an "interactive vintage press book," which re-presents the original press notes in their entirety. You can highlight a certain part of the page and enlarge it to read the blurbs or see the art up close. It’s a neat feature, and one wonders why we don’t see more of this. There’s also a "Hollywood Highlights" segment, featuring newsreel coverage of Collins at the time. Stopover Tokyo is a bad movie, but a pretty good DVD, thanks to these features. Still not one I can heartily recommend, though.

1 comment:

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I've been interested in seeing this movie, but your review has me thinking twice about renting it right away. I always like looking at Robert Wagner so maybe I'll just enjoy the eye-candy the film has to offer. Seeing Tokyo in 1957 will probably keep me interested too.