Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Director: Jean Negulesco                                Writers: Frank Gruber
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                            Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott and Faye Emerson

After the startling success of The Maltese Falcon--Dashiell Hammett’s story had been filmed twice before by the studio--Warner Brothers made the decision to team two of its most distinctive character actors, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, in a number of other suspense films. Some of them were successful, like Casablanca, but most of them were not. One thing is undeniable, however, the onscreen chemistry between the two actors, and in that regard any film with the two of them is worth seeking out. It turns out that when John Huston had made his pitch for The Maltese Falcon, director Jean Negulesco had already been tabbed for the project. Huston apologized and told him that Warners had an equally exciting story in Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, which he would eventually make as The Mask of Dimitrios. Negulesco wanted name actors in his film, and in addition to newcomer Zachary Scott, he credited himself with the idea of teaming Greenstreet and Lorre. But while Negulesco said in an interview that the film would have been a bit boring without Lorre, he’s overstating things. It’s a bit boring even with the actor. He and screenwriter Frank Gruber had attempted to do what Huston had done, simply filming the novel, but there is a vast difference between the European thriller they inherited and the taut pre-noir detective novel that Huston stole from him.

The film opens on text that tells of the greed of Dimitrios, followed by a map of Istanbul. In rapid succession, children find the dead body of Dimitrios on the beach, military colonel Kurt Katch closes the case in a hurry saying that they’ll never know who killed him but whoever it was did them all a favor. From there the scene moves to a party at the home of Florence Bates, and the reason for Katch’s quick departure. He wants to meet mystery novelist Peter Lorre, and then asks him if he would be interested in a real murder. Lorre is interested and after taking a look at the body, the two head to his hotel room where Katch tells him Dimitrios’s story. It begins twenty years early with Zachary Scott as the title character. He needs to get out of town quickly, but doesn’t have the money. So he enlists one of his friends and kills a pawnbroker because he knows where he keeps his money. Katch then goes on to tell of a list of crimes that Scott committed, robbery, espionage and assassination, and the writer is hooked. Downstairs, however, Sydney Greenstreet shows up and is visibly upset by the news of Scott’s death. He tails Lorre to Athens, and then the two meet on the train from Athens to Bulgaria while Lorre is doing research for a book about Scott. In Sofia he meets Faye Emerson, a nightclub owner who knew Scott and was in love with him. But when Lorre gets back to his hotel room he finds Greenstreet inside, and the fat man pulls a gun on him.

Apparently Lorre has information about Scott that when, combined with what Greenstreet knows, will result in their earning a million French Francs when they get to Paris. Lorre is more amused than bemused by the whole thing, and agrees to Greenstreet’s plan, hearing more stories about Scott’s nefarious activities along the way. Reports have it that Lorre and Greenstreet spent a lot of their time on the set clowning around, and it shows in the film. Lorre in particular has a difficult time playing anything like fear. If the film has any merit today, however, it’s because of the two character actors. The reality is they needed a real star or two in their pictures to make them focus, allowing them to rise to the greatness of the supporting actors they really were. Cast as leads, however, they seem rudderless. There are also some wonderful appearances by other distinctive character actors. John Abbott plays the manager of the records bureau in Athens, and the great Eduardo Ciannelli plays a Bulgarian newspaper reporter who introduces Lorre to Emerson. But a wonderful surprise on the screen happens in a Yugoslavian government office when Lotte Palfi Andor suddenly appears in close up as a secretary. The film was made on the cheap, using existing sets, and it shows. Still, the lighting and shot selection is good, and the film has an interesting score by Adolph Deutsch. But while it’s called a forgotten noir gem by some critics . . . it’s really not. The Mask of Dimitrious is fun for the appearance of Greenstreet and Lorre, but little else.

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