Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

Starting with the classic 'The Maltese Falcon', between 1941 and 1946 Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre appeared together in 10 movies, most of them a thriller of some sort. Due to their physical appearances this made them, for those few years at least, almost seem like the Laurel and Hardy of dark cinema. In 1944 they appeared together in 'The Mask Of Dimitrios', a noir spy thriller based on an Eric Ambler novel.

The titular Dimitrios is Dimitrios Makropoulos, an infamous jack-of-all-trades criminal mastermind whose dead body washes ashore near Istanbul, Turkey. Dutch detective writer Cornelius Leyden (Lorre) is in Istanbul at that time and police official colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), an avid reader of detective novels, is eager to tell Leyden about Dimitrios, and even shows him the body before its cremation. Haki explains that Dimitrios managed to escape the law for a long time, so much so that the only way they know the body is Dimitrios is because of a name tag and papers found in its clothes. Leyden's interest in this mysterious character is piqued, he sees a possible angle for a new novel. He starts to retrace the history of Dimitrios by talking to people who knew Dimitrios, such as nightclub owner Irana (Faye Emerson) and wealthy socialite Grudek (Vincent Francen), while travelling all over Europe following leads and clues. Along the way he comes into contact with a Mr. Peters (Greenstreet), who is also interested in Dimitrios, but for reasons shrouded in mystery. Leyden is puzzled by the elusive Dimitrios as well as Mr. Peters, but also intrigued, and before he knows it he is in Paris where Mr. Peters finally explains his intentions, which involves one million francs, blackmail and Dimitrios...
To me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.
In typical noir fashion, the movie has a number of flashbacks, in which people recount their memories of Dimitrios, played by Zachary Scott. Through these flashbacks Leyden, and the viewer, gets a better idea of Dimitrios and his cunning, but dangerous and lethal, intellect. He is both charming and ruthless, suave and threatening, but always calculated and one step ahead of everybody else. Whether it involves, murder, smuggling drugs or blackmail, and being hired as a spy to steal military plans for a European country, Dimitrios rises to the occasion every single time. As long as there is a profit to be made.

The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of Eric Ambler's spy novel 'A Coffin For Dimitrios' from 1939, the movie's title taken from the title of a chapter in the book. I read the book recently and it is a clever and fun read. Prolific pulp author Frank Gruber took a few liberties to turn the source material into a slightly more movie-like screenplay, but nothing that really alters the plot. Most notably the name and nationality of its protagonist was changed from the British Charles Latimer to the Dutch Cornelius Leyden, possibly because of Peter Lorre's accent which nobody can mistake for a British one. Not that he has a Dutch accent either, but I digress. The other big difference, but still not really changing the flow of the movie, is the story recounted by Grudek (Victor Francen). In the novel Latimer learns of this story from a letter sent by Marukakis, who is one of the first people Latimer/Leyden meets on his journey. In the novel Grudek is only addressed as G., a masterspy who employs Dimitrios to steal some military plans. The contents of this letter takes up an entire chapter in the book. Probably in an effort to make it more cinematic, this story is told by Grudek when Leyden visits him (Latimer never meets G. in the novel). But the story, both in the novel and in the book, plays out almost the same, except the roles of Grudek/G. and Dimitrios in it are reversed. While it may sound like a big change, in actuality it serves the exact same purpose in both cases without changing the course of the plot, while making Dimitrios seem like an even more cunning criminal in the movie. As a small note of interest, Colonel Haki also makes an appearance in the Eric Ambler novel 'Journey Into Fear' from 1940, which was turned into a movie in 1943, where he is played by none other than Orson Welles.

Zachary Scott made his film debut in this movie, and he is perfectly cast with his unique lizard-like look that made him perfect for this role. He would become a household name a year later in the classic noir 'Mildred Pierce' where his slimy traits are also used to maximum effect. He is solid here, and plays all sides of Dimitrios's character to a tee, making him really seem like an almost superhuman villain, but who still ends up a mere mortal in his final moments. He would appear in several more noirs, including 1950's 'Guilty Bystander' where he played opposite Faye Emerson again, who is quite the cheap-looking nightclub owner here. But despite being billed third, her role is remarkably small and one-dimensional.

Peter Lorre, oddly enough billed fourth despite being the movie's protagonist and central character, and Sydney Greenstreet are both simply great here. The two had a lot of chemistry together and this is exploited to the fullest here. Both actors also had distinct ways of speaking that, combined with their non-average physical appearances, made them in a sense character actors rather than leading actors, despite both being very good at their trade. Lorre plays Leyden the way Latimer is described in the book, as someone who might know how to write about a murder but who is quite naive when it comes to criminal reality. Conversely, Greenstreet embodied Mr. Peters perfectly with a tone of voice and glint in his eye that always makes everything he says seem somehow suspect.
Murder, treason, and betrayal... that's the finishing touch.
Jean Negulesco directed the movie, which was his first of several noirs, which also included 'Three Strangers', again with Lorre and Greenstreet, and 'Nobody Lives Forever', both from 1946. For all these movies, Arthur Edeson was behind the camera. Edeson had already worked as a cinematographer with Lorre and Greenstreet on the classics-among-classics 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca', as did composer Adolph Deutsch. They all deliver solid work here, turning an intriguing but fairly static and dialogue-heavy novel/screenplay into a brisk-moving and exciting thriller which feels more action-filled than it really is, and it has some beautifully shot scenes as well. It is a really good and fun movie that will no doubt please any lover of film noir and black & white spy/crime thrillers in general. Recommended, as is the novel!


Notice how in the trailer Lorre and Greenstreet are referred to as 'The Little Man' and 'The Fat Man'.

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