by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran us one of the movies I’d recorded to DVD from the Peter Lorre tribute on TCM the day before: The Mask of Dimitrios, a 1944 Warners melodrama based on the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, directed by Jean Negulesco from a script by Frank Gruber — though according to Negulesco’s interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in the book The Celluloid Muse he and the film’s producer, Henry Blanke, pieced together the script on their own by cutting and pasting from two copies of Ambler’s novel — much the way John Huston had written the script for The Maltese Falcon (also a Blanke production).
Negulesco describes the film as a consolation prize because he didn’t get to do The Maltese Falcon himself; “I started work, and after two months they called me saying, ‘It’s too bad, but someone else wants to do The Maltese Falcon and you’ll have to go back to doing shorts.’” He was a bit less upset when he found that the “someone else” was John Huston, whom he liked — “He did a beautiful job, too, following the book closely; my handling of the film would not have differed significantly from his” — but he was still piqued until Anatole Litvak offered him Dimitrios as a sort of consolation prize (and later Negulesco got to direct Three Strangers, based on a story by John Huston, which according to Robert Osborne was originally intended as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon and remodeled when the Warners legal department found out that though they owned the rights to the novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett had retained ownership of Sam Spade and the novel’s other characters).
Negulesco’s interview identified Dimitrios as his first film even though he has one previous directorial credit, Singapore Woman — Warners’ 1941 “B” remake of Dangerous — which Negulesco said he wasn’t allowed to finish even though he’s the only director credited on screen. Ambler was a British novelist who specialized in stories of international intrigue and whose books quickly became formulaic and dull, though Dimitrios was written early enough in his career that that hadn’t happened yet; its central characters are Cornelius Latimer Leyden (Peter Lorre), an economics professor (the idea of Peter Lorre giving a lecture on, say, the money supply is pretty bizarre in itself) turned mystery writer who stumbles on the real-life mystery of Dimitrios Makropoulos when a body with identification bearing that name washes up on the beach at Istanbul; Dimitrios himself (Zachary Scott, in his film debut),who’s first seen only in flashbacks detailing his life of unscrupulous crime (he has a habit of committing robberies in which he murders the person he’s robbing and rigs it so someone else takes the fall; later he gets involved in international espionage); and Peters, t/n Eric Petersen (Sydney Greenstreet), a former confederate of Dimitrios’s in an international smuggling ring that collapsed when Dimitrios turned all the others in to save his own skin.
Leyden decides to use Dimitrios’s life and (presumed) death as the basis of a true-crime book, and so he goes around Europe investigating Dimitrios’s life, whereupon we get a series of flashbacks showing what he’s discovered. Peters follows him on his travels and the two ultimately hook up and learn something we’ve suspected for several reels: that Dimitrios isn’t dead at all: he killed a confederate who was trying to blackmail him and planted fake I.D. on him so that when the corpse washed up to sea (too bloated and decayed to be identified in the pre-DNA 1930’s) it would appear to be Dimitrios who was dead. Notwithstanding what happened to the last person who attempted to blackmail Dimitrios, Peters hatches a plot to blackmail him again and enlists Leyden’s help; in the final confrontation Dimitrios and Peters kill each other and Leyden barely escapes.
The Mask of Dimitrios has its problems. It seems to be pieced together from gimmicks that were done better in movies made either just a few years earlier (like the multiple-narrator flashbacks of Citizen Kane and the overall atmosphere — and two of the same cast members — of The Maltese Falcon) or a few years later (like the master-criminal-who’s-thought-to-be-dead-but-isn’t of The Third Man), and it suffers from the lack of a central female character (the closest we get is a Dietrich-esque nightclub singer played by Faye Emerson, who turns up in the present as one of Dimitrios’s victims and narrates one of the flashbacks) or a romance.
There’s nothing here to grip the emotions as there is in the central intrigues of The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, where the romantic subplots added depth to the overall suspense. (Probably that’s just a sign that Ambler, though a more-than-competent thriller writer, was hardly in the same league as either Dashiell Hammett or Graham Greene.) It’s an arbitrarily plotted movie, moving its characters around to just about any location on the globe that Warners’ collection of standing sets could conceivably reproduce with some degree of credibility, and it hits the emotion only once — in the tale of Bulic (Steven Geray), a Yugoslav government clerk who’s lured by Dimitrios into a scheme first to sell access to government contracts, then to lose his windfall and then some at the roulette table, and finally to get blackmailed into stealing a government secret to pay off his gambling debt; we’re appalled by his naïveté but we’re also moved by his plight in ways we’re not by much of anything that happens in the rest of the film.
The Mask of Dimitrios also suffers by comparison with Journey Into Fear, a much better Ambler-based movie made the year before by Orson Welles’ Mercury unit at RKO, with Welles as producer (and uncredited co-director with Norman Foster) and playing the role of Col. Haki, head of the Turkish secret police, a recurring character in various Ambler novels — including Dimitrios, in which he’s played by Kurt Katch, whose performance completely lacks the authority of Welles’s and gets awfully annoying for someone who’s supposed to be (mostly) on the side of good. (Ironically, in Confidential Report Welles would later make a film quite similarly plotted to The Mask of Dimitrios — and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.)
The best aspects of Dimitrios are the noir atmospherics, including a set for the final shootout that looks like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — “I established a somber, low-key mood that I followed in a number of subsequent films,” Negulesco said; “I learned that the public loves to share the actor’s situation, to be a vicarious part of the action. It’s curious that when you see actors moving and talking in semi-darkness it’s always more exciting than seeing them plainly, because you identify with them more” — and the marvelous anti-type casting of Peter Lorre. Negulesco recalled that during the tests for the film Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet cut up and joked a lot — and that Blanke saw the tests and almost fired him from the film — and while Negulesco kept his job by explaining to Blanke that he had let them get away with that in the test just to find out what he shouldn’t let them do in the film, it’s clear that some of Lorre’s weirdly comic schtick did end up in the final product — to good effect.
The idea of Lorre as someone too squeamish to be in the same room with a corpse challenges our expectations of him (after all, his first film success was in M, in which he played a serial killer of children!), and his skittering out of the way in the finale not only saves his life but ironically reflects what we’ve been told of his character. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore!” Charles exclaimed when the movie was over. They don’t (though, ironically, the relative emotional detachment of Dimitrios makes it look more “modern” than The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man), and more’s the pity … — 8/15/08