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The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944)

Starring: Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Victor Francen

Written By: Frank Gruber, Eric Ambler (novel) Directed By: Jean Negulesco

The Short Version

The Mask of Dimitrios is a film noir gem that fell through the cracks.

Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet always make a great combo.

The dark Euro feel is wonderfully achieved, even though it’s all studio sets.

It’s smart, it’s deliberate, and it’s built wonderfully around its characters.

If you can find it, snatch up The Mask of Dimitrios and enjoy.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LEYDEN.

Really, this one was too easy.


Pairs Well With...

ENGLISH WHISKY.

What’s interesting is that even though it’s what the characters here specifically ask to drink, there had been no English single malt distilled for roughly forty years.  You can get it now, though; people started making and selling the stuff again just a few years ago after a century’s drought.

“He was my friend!  No, he wasn't my friend, but he was a nice man!”


It is often said that “they don’t make them like they used to.”  The Mask of Dimitrios serves as a marvelous case in point.

Our story takes place in November of 1938.  A Dutch mystery novelist, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre, The Raven), is on holiday in Istanbul when he has a chance meeting with a local official, Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch, The Mummy’s Curse), who happens to be a great fan.  As an amusement, Haki takes Leyden to the morgue and shows him a body found washed up on shore that morning.  The body is identified as that of Dimitrios Makrapoulos, a notorious criminal and spy.  Leyden becomes fascinated by Haki’s brief description of the rogue’s past, and decides to retrace the life of Dimitrios to use as material for his next novel.

But Leyden isn’t the only one interested in Dimitrios, and he’ll soon learn that some people want the past – and its secrets – to stay buried…

This is the film noir that fell through the cracks: one with no American characters and locales (despite be shot entirely on Hollywood studio sets), no femmes fatale (the femmes are hardly fatale), and no Humphrey Bogart.  Perhaps that’s why as of this writing The Mask of Dimitrios hasn’t made it past the VHS threshold and now lives only on a few dusty shelves in households that still have functioning VCRs and – thankfully – in Ted Turner’s library, out from which it is allowed to take walks in public once or twice a year.

If you enjoy film noir, you’ll want to make sure you’re in the park on walk day.

The Mask of Dimitrios is set just under a year before the German invasion of Poland that set off World War II in Europe, and was released in theatres just weeks after the Allies landed at Normandy.  However, despite being a story that centers around a spy in Europe on the very eve of chaos, The Mask of Dimitrios does not at all play like a war era picture.  The shadows of its noir corners are cast more by the lights of films like The Maltese Falcon than they are by those of Casablanca, and indeed, the espionage activities of Dimitrios are given the same weight as the crime of stealing a thousand francs from his lover and then disappearing into the night.  I consider this a brilliant move, because by resisting the temptation to throw in the news and jingoistic attitudes of the day, the filmmakers have in effect made The Mask of Dimitrios all the more timeless.  The production design does it the same favor.  The casual viewer would never guess that the cast and crew never left Hollywood; the dark corners, close hotel rooms, and lavish dining areas of several points throughout Europe are wonderfully realized, providing a genuine “Old World” feel to the film that could just as easily be 1918 as it could 1938. 

That Old World atmosphere is also helped along by excellent direction from Jean Negulesco (How to Marry a Millionaire), who sets a masterful pace that pushes the adventure along while at the same time never making the sparring between characters feel rushed.  Indeed, he recognizes that the characters – and the actors playing them – are this film’s greatest strength, and so makes sure that every shot plays them up to maximum advantage.  Thus, The Mask of Dimitrios feels action packed despite the fact that there’s very little violence and only a couple of bullets for punctuation, and though it carries all of the shadows of noir, it’s more adventurous than sinister, and there’s just enough humor to keep it from getting too heavy.  Besides, who needs boxing and bullets when words delivered by masterful players can be so much more satisfying?

And oh yes, we do have some masterful players at work here.  The great Peter Lorre steps comfortably into the shoes of the heroic lead, his personality adding a sense of intelligent fun to the character without ever turning him into a buffoon.  Indeed, Lorre’s Leyden is actually quite smart, and though his style of getting the intellectual drop on someone is far apart from Bogart’s, it’s just as satisfying.  Standing across from Lorre for most of the picture is his frequent costar, Sydney Greenstreet, whose character of Peters is very much Greenstreet’s usual type: marvelously brilliant, eloquent, and almost professorial in stature… while at the same time looking as though he could kill with his eyes alone if he had a mind to.  Their exchanges are a joy to listen to, always coming across as good natured even when the discussions are deadly serious, and always razor sharp even when no blood is being drawn.  They are the work of two great professionals who have grown so accustomed to being together on stage that one can sometimes wonder if they’re reading from a script at all.

But of course, there is a script, and a deftly written one at that.  Call it another feather is this flick’s fedora.

Meanwhile, the title character is played by Zachary Scott (Mildred Pierce), pushed up the ladder early by the studio to make his silver screen debut.  While there’s no question that Lorre and Greenstreet really are the stars of this movie, he nevertheless holds his own, and is convincingly greasy/suave in the role of the spy/thief.  The rest of the cast also does well; there really aren’t any wrong notes hit by anyone.

Indeed, that can be said about the entire picture.  This isn’t to say that The Mask of Dimitrios reaches the storied heights of The Maltese Falcon or some of the other heady names that tend to stand out in the popular imagination as “definitive film noir,” but it’s still a great flick, and definitely deserves a wider audience in the modern age than current distribution allows.  Hopefully, someone will fix that with a DVD and/or a blu ray.  Soon.

Bottom line, even though it’s pretty much impossible to find any other way, The Mask of Dimitrios is definitely worth your time if you happen to catch it on the TV schedule.  The one-two punch of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet should be excuse enough for any real noir fan; call the fact that they’re in such a great little gem icing on the cake.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2012


More From The Bar! | 30 Second Film Noir | Unknown | Dial M for Murder |



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