Though The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), a film noir starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, is clearly patterned after The Maltese Falcon (Lorre and Greenstreet on a similarly Byzantine quest) and Casablanca (exotic foreign intrigue with colorful multinational cast), the picture, faithfully adapted from Eric Ambler's novel (actually called A Coffin for Dimitrios), is also quite unusual, even unique. For starters, it lacks a truly central character, with fourth-billed Lorre more or less its protagonist. He's cast way, WAY against type as a rather sweet, almost milquetoast mystery writer. The film's unusual structure closely resembles Citizen Kane (1941) and, in one respect, anticipates another Orson Welles role, in The Third Man (1949).
Lorre and Greenstreet did 10 movies together between 1941's The Maltese Falcon and 1946's The Verdict. In some of these, Casablanca for instance, they shared no scenes, but Warner Bros. gradually saw them as a kind of team, the trailer for this billing Greenstreet as "The Fat Man" (a reference to Falcon) and Lorre as "The Little Man." The Mask of Dimitrios is partly a vehicle for them, partly a showcase for the studio's new discovery, Zachery Scott, in his movie debut, as the scurrilous title character.
A Warner Archive release, The Mask of Dimitrios utilizes a decent transfer of slightly dodgy elements. I also encountered a strange electronic hum in the audio, so low some might not even notice it, but definitely there.
While visiting Istanbul, Dutch writer Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) is approached by avid fan Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), a distinguished police inspector. That very day Haki's men recovered a body, stabbed and tossed into the Bosphorus, identified as elusive criminal mastermind Dimitrios Makropoulos.
Intrigued, like newsreel man Mr. Thompson in Citizen Kane, Leyden begins researching Dimitrios's past, primarily through interviews with his former criminal associates, a former lover, and victims. Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachery Scott) is an utterly unscrupulous man with no redeeming qualities at all, just an oily charm.
The film has several long flashback sequences, first recounting a failed assassination attempt in Bulgaria, where lover Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson) provides Dimitrios with an alibi and loans him money to flee the country. Later, Leyden interviews former spy Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen), who tells of Dimitrios's sadistic manipulation of Karel Bulic (Steven Geray), a meek Yugoslavian government worker.
In the present day, as Leyden travels all over Eastern Europe, searching for clues about Dimitrios, charming but mysterious Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet) shadows the writer's every move, eventually becoming friendly with him. As with other Lorre-Greenstreet pairings, their scenes together, mesmerizingly performed, are a highlight.
Unlike Dimitrios, Peters is a criminal with much humanity, and he's fascinated by Leyden's kind-heartedness and gentle soul. While Greenstreet plays, expertly, a variation of his usual persona (seated, Greenstreet is even photographed in the same manner as The Maltese Falcon: low camera angles emphasizing his girth), Lorre on the other hand couldn't be further removed from his regular Warner Bros. image, one usually closer to Dimitrios than Leyden. But his performance is just wonderful, even endearing, and the film's impressively tense climax ends on a genuinely touching note.
Lorre and Greenstreet compensate for the, at times, shaggy dog story air of the narrative, as do the marvelous art direction and set decoration by, respectively, Ted Smith and Walter F. Tilford. The film may not offer authentic recreations of Istanbul, Athens, Sofia, Paris, etc., but they certainly overflow with smoky, noirish atmosphere, particularly the Paris Metro sets. Adolph Deutsch's musical score is also outstanding.
Video & Audio
For some reason The Mask of Dimitrios has always looked a bit dog-eared in television airings and home video versions, as if a composite of film elements are all that survive. It's not bad, just not up to the level of other Warner titles from this period. I also noticed, faintly, a familiar sounding electronic hum I never could quite identify during various shots, probably most noticeable around the 1:23:57 mark. It's so faint many won't notice it, nor did it interfere with my enjoyment of the picture, but it's there. Otherwise, the Dolby Digital mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is acceptable on this region-free release.
The lone extra is an original trailer, which opens with Greenstreet bidding viewers to "Come closer. I'm going to tell you of another story," which he did in several Warner Bros. trailers.
Very enjoyable, particularly for the performances of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, The Mask of Dimitrios is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.