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Long considered a cult favorite and especially loved by fans of Peter Lorre, The Mask of Dimitrios is a 'foreign intrigue' mystery thriller originally from the pen of the respected writer Eric Ambler. Film versions of Ambler's work haven't fared as well as those of Graham Greene a case in point being Background to Danger, a dull spy chase story made even duller by the presence of George Raft. Dimitrios applies the noir visuals and director Jean Negulesco hypes the mood of crime and decadence, but the real appeal is the film's parade of nicely cast supporting players. This is frequently cited as the best of the Peter Lorre-Sydney Greenstreet pairings. Lorre has the leading part but receives only fourth billing.
Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) becomes intrigued by the tale of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious con man, criminal and assassin whose body has just washed up on a beach in Istanbul. Shown the corpse as a favor by policeman Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), Leyden learns how Dimitrios abandoned a casual accomplice to face a murder charge. Perhaps seeing a subject for his next book, Leyden travels westward across Europe to interview a succession of Dimitrios' former associates, learning that the man was a universally despised double-crosser who betrayed his friends as often as he stole from them. Nightclub owner Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson) recounts how Dimitrios stole her money; wealthy Wladislaw Grudek (Victor Francen) relates how he partnered with Dimitrios to blackmail poor Navy clerk Karel Bulic (Steven Geray) into stealing military secrets. At first threatening Cornelius and then joining him is Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), who demands to know everything the author is doing but is slow to reveal his own interest in the matter. Finally, in Paris, Peters eventually brings his nefarious plan out in the open -- and invites Cornelius to join him in a crooked deal of his own.
The fun of The Mask of Dimitrios is following Eric Ambler's international puzzle, as Cornelius Leyden travels to four or five European cities -- Sophia, Smyrna, Belgrade, Geneva -- in search of more information about the mysterious master criminal. The pace is brisk, with a new personality entering the story every few minutes. Leyden proceeds as if covering any story, assuming that because Dimitiros is dead, there is no longer any danger. We of course know better.
I've read critiques that feel that Peter Lorre is too unusual of a personality to play Eric Ambler's hero as written in the book, but I'm too much of a Lorre fan to agree. Lorre's Cornelius Leyden is utterly charming, polite and inoffensive throughout the movie, whether visiting a morgue in the middle of the night or interviewing people that behave as if they might poison him. It's a treat to see Lorre in a role that doesn't require him to behave in a cowardly manner, or buoy up limp scenes by ad-libbing comic touches. And best of all, he's on screen all the time, absent only when the narrative enters another flashback to one of Dimitrios' nefarious adventures.
The character played by top-billed Sydney Greenstreet is by contrast almost too familiar. His oversized Mr. Peters tosses Leyden's hotel room and threatens him with a tiny pistol; he talks Leyden into traveling halfway across Europe under false pretenses. For all we know, the people he sends Leyden to interview might be dangerous killers. The Mask of Dimitrios becomes shaky only when Cornelius Leyden becomes far too accepting of Peters' evasions and prevarications.
Critics like Pauline Kael expressed impatience that The Mask of Dimitrios lacks big stars, as if Warners were cheating its audience; my more common reaction to Hollywood movies is that stars were often inappropriately jammed into stories where they don't belong. That's a sideways way of saying that this movie gives pleasure because the story comes first. With Cornelius a passive observer and Peters a potential villain, there are no conventional star parts here, anyway. Any attempt to put one in would warp the film's framework out of alignment.
The lineup of faces is nicely chosen: everybody looks potentially suspicious but nobody is immediately identifiable as a conspirator. Kurt Katch and John Abbott look sinister but are not. Few viewers will be able to identify the beautiful Marjorie Hoshelle, but she's excellent as the impressionable woman used as a pawn in one of Dimitrios' con games. Overly familiar actor Eduardo Ciannelli appears in a very brief part, while Swiss smoothie Victor Francen is a deceitful crook who partners with Dimitrios to pull off a cruel blackmail-espionage ruse. Their victim is a luckless nobody who happens to have access to a secret document. Few people can connect the name of actor Steven Geray to a face either, but he's also immediately recognizable and always excellent. Director Negulesco treats these flashback stories as independent mini-movies, not a way to get from point A to point B. Underused beauty Faye Emerson makes a strong appearance as Irana, a 'woman with a mysterious past.' Irana was once fleeced by Dimitirios, and is so bitter about it that she almost attacks Leyden and Peters when they ask her to tell the story.
Introduced in the flashbacks, Dimitrios is played by Zachary Scott in his debut film appearance. Thin and cruel-looking, Scott has no trouble coming off as a nasty customer. In one scene all we can see of him is one eye and an arched eyebrow. A somewhat theatrical presence, Scott would later come off as awkward when his characters or dialogue weren't tailored to his talents. He appears too weak to be a satisfactory mate for Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road, for instance. After his visible role in Mildred Pierce, Scott seemed fit to play nothing but oily tuxedo lizards. But both Jean Renoir (in The Southerner) and Luis Buñuel (in The Young One) cast him very effectively as characters of the southern bayous.
The Mask of Dimitrios once drew attention for its flashback structure, at a time when some film reviewers believed that movies with multiple flashbacks began with Citizen Kane. Of course, the weakness of flashback-heavy stories is that, without Kane-like clues to the contrary, we naturally assume that everything in the flashbacks is just as "true" as the normal part of the narrative. Does Faye Emerson's Irana fib about the extent of her humiliation by Dimitrios? If he cleaned her out, where did she get the money to open her lavish club? And why does her flashback visualize an assassination attempt that she did not personally witness? Victor Francen's wealthy Grudek doesn't seem worse for wear either, yet he insists that Dimitrios cheated him as well. And by what reason do we assume that Sydney Greenstreet's Mr. Peters is telling the full truth? Cornelius Leyden accepts the testimony of a very suspicious group of characters at face value. He walks cheerfully into several potentially fatal situations, prompted by a man whose first act was to hold him up at gunpoint. As a mystery, The Mask of Dimitrios is more about exotic surfaces than complexities. 1
I don't know if anybody will be surprised by the revelation in the film's last act, which leads to an exciting final confrontation. The Mask of Dimitrios has another mark in its favor when it skips a Hollywood-style ending in favor of a finish more like a class-act mystery story. It's a treat to follow the adventures of Cornelius Leyden, who will indeed have a great story to write. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Mask of Dimitrios is a good transfer of this lushly photographed slice of foreign intrigue. There is some dirt and some reels are a bit softer than others, which is perhaps a sign of difficulty working with less than optimal elements. Cameraman Arthur Edeson's lighting schemes work up plenty of mysterioso atmosphere. My favorite shot in the film is a close-up of Peter Lorre in the Istanbul morgue. Seen behind him on a wall is the shadow of Colonel Haki's hand, which grabs the corpse of Dimitrios by the hair and jerks its head upright. The audio is always good. The music of Adolph Deutsch (The Apartment) conjures appropriate moods, and segues well into snatches of songs like Perfidia.
The amusing trailer has various characters speak directly into the camera, assuring us that they're in the middle of one heck of mystery. The trailer telescopes all the film's violent action into a very brief running time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mask of Dimitrios rates:
1. Which is fine, but very different from something like The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade pretends to accept the BS dished out by Greenstreet, Astor and Lorre, even when the schemers repeatedly change their story. At any given time we can't be sure that they haven't gotten the better of Spade. But at least The Maltese Falcon proposes that liars, thieves and murderers might actually LIE to our hero... that doesn't seem to happen here.
2. Only a few months after seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's Ruthless again, its fight-to-the-death finale between the same two actors almost seems like a sequel to The Mask of Dimitrios. The two combatants are still at it, four years later.
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