Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Face Behind the Mask (Columbia, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I ran last night was The Face Behind the Mask — actually two films called The Face Behind the Mask which Turner Classic Movies had run back-to-back, one a 1938 MGM short Charles and I dimly recalled having seen before, based on the legend of the “man in the iron mask” who was supposedly imprisoned by King Louis XIV of France and kept incognito so that literally no one would be able to see his face and thereby know who the mysterious prisoner was. This was produced by John Nesbitt (who also narrated, before he started using the title “Passing Parade” for his shorts series) and directed by Jacques Tourneur, artfully using the MGM infrastructure and in particular the studio’s handsome complement of standing sets suitable for a 17th century story and the stock footage from MGM’s previous historical epics that could be pressed into service.

The other Face Behind the Mask was a 69-minute “B” from Columbia in 1941 that starred Peter Lorre in a rare sympathetic role; even though his character becomes a master criminal about a third of the way through (and then reforms, and tries to get out of the rackets, two-thirds of the way through), we remain on his side. Interestingly, like the identically titled MGM short this was also made by a French director — Robert Florey — and it’s one of the best films on Florey’s résumé, right up there with Murders in the Rue Morgue and Ex-Lady. Florey spent most of his career in the “B” salt mines — one of those brilliantly talented directors whose skill at working with the limited budgets of “B” productions ensured that he’d never make the breakthrough to more prestigious films (as opposed to Fred Zinnemann, who made it up from MGM shorts to “B” features and ultimately to the prestigious A-list assignments he deserved; to my knowledge, Zinnemann remains the only person who’s won Academy Awards for directing both shorts and features).

It helps that, unlike most of Florey’s films, this one also has an unusually talented writer, Paul Jarrico, who co-wrote the script with Allen Vincent based on a story by Arthur Levinson and a radio play called Interim by Thomas Edward O’Connell. That many screenwriters on a project is usually a bad sign, but Jarrico seems to have dominated and created a quite remarkable, if often pretty far-fetched, tale that gives Lorre a chance to play a far greater range of emotions than he usually could. At the start he’s an enthusiastic Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. named Janos Szabo (though Lorre achieved his initial fame in Germany he was actually Hungarian, so this film is one of the few in which he got to play his real nationality), eager to get off the ship and start his new life in his new country. He hooks up first with a crook and then with a cop, to whom he complains that he’s been robbed — he hasn’t; he merely moved his money from his wallet to his shirtfront to keep it safe while he washed up on ship — but the officer, Lt. Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe), becomes a lifelong friend. O’Hara steers him to a boarding house owned by Terry Finnegan (George McKay), and Finnegan runs a restaurant on the ground floor and gives Janos the job as dishwasher.

Janos is determined to save enough money to bring over his Hungarian girlfriend and marry her in the U.S., but his plans are derailed when another tenant in Finnegan’s boarding house, about to be caught breaking the rule against cooking in the rooms, leaves in a hurry and leaves behind a flaming Sterno can which quickly sets the entire building on fire. Janos is trapped inside — his hands come through without damage but his face is hideously scarred, so much so that the nurse who first sees him in the hospital screams at the sight of it (and Florey cannily gives us only a passing glimpse of it, enough for us to know it’s ugly without having it waved in our faces). Janos seeks out a plastic surgeon but finds out that, while the surgeon’s assistant can make him a temporary mask of rubber that will look like him (he uses Janos’s passport photo as the model), an actual operation to restore his pre-burn appearance will cost thousands of dollars. Janos is about to commit suicide when he’s saved by petty criminal Dinky (George E. Stone, essentially reprising his role from Little Caesar), and they inadvertently steal $12 from a passer-by who drops his wallet while fleeing in panic from the sight of Lorre’s face.

With the burned face making it impossible for Lorre to find legitimate employment, and his realization that the only way he can make enough money to afford the plastic surgery is to live outside the law, Janos takes over Dinky’s gang and stages a series of impeccably planned and executed robberies that baffle the police. The only problem is that the gang’s former leader, Jeff Jeffries (James Seay), gets out of Sing Sing and expects to take over, and never forgives either Janos or the other members of the mob for demoting him. Janos seems reconciled to his criminal life until he has a chance meeting with a blind girl, Helen Williams (a marvelously effective Evelyn Keyes), who makes her moral detestation of crooks crystal clear to him even though she’s (unknowingly) dating one. Janos decides to retire from the gang and use the proceeds from his crimes to buy a house in the country, marry Helen and live there with her. But he makes the mistake of telling Dinky where he is, and Jeff and the other gang members torture Dinky and force the secret out of him. Jeff plants a bomb to go off in Janos’s car when anyone turns on the radio; Janos avoids the trap — Dinky has called him and warned him (though his place is too remote for a phone line of its own so he’s picked up the call at the local gas station) — but in a beautifully staged suspense scene Helen turns on the car radio and sets off the bomb a split second before Janos can get there to warn her.

Janos concocts a bizarre revenge: learning from Dinky that the gangsters intend to fly to Mexico in a chartered plane, Janos knocks out the pilot, takes the controls himself (it’s already been established in the Jarrico-Vincent script that he worked for an aviation company in Hungary and had learned how to fly a plane) and strands them in the middle of the Arizona desert about 100 miles on the wrong side of the Mexican border. He’s told O’Hara where he’s taking them, and instructed him to pay the reward money for his capture to Dinky’s mother in the country. The ending is a bizarre one, as — realizing they’ve been had — the gang members tie Janos to the landing wheels of the plane, and all of them wander off in different directions and soon die from dehydration and exposure.

A macabre and rather far-fetched story — it was released to TV in 1958 in Columbia’s so-called “Son of Shock” collection of horror films (a few of them Columbia productions but most of them licensed from Universal) but it really is much more a Gothic melodrama than a horror film — and surprisingly original despite its quirky debts to previous movies (The Man Who Laughs and A Woman’s Face in particular), The Face Behind the Mask is a brilliant movie, directed by Florey in full-out film noir style and featuring a protagonist whose place on the cusp between good and evil is as noir as Florey’s and cinematographer Franz Planer’s visual atmospherics.

It’s also an utterly gripping story that evokes the performance of Lorre’s career: though he’s a bit too chipper in the opening scenes as the happy-go-lucky immigrant eagerly anticipating success in the U.S., once the fire happens and the plot turns darker Lorre magnificently rises to the challenge of the script, negotiating the clash between his character’s basic decency and his criminal involvements with skill and aplomb and making us realize that Lorre was a more complex and rangy actor than he usually got to prove in one stereotyped villain role after another. It’s a brilliant film and one that deserves to be better known (it should have been featured in The Film Noir Encyclopedia — it counts both visually and thematically) — and it shows both Lorre and Florey working at or close to the absolute peak of their talents. I’d seen this once before, on TV in the early 1970’s, and remembered it as good but now it seems even better.