What can one say about a movie where the most noble and forthright character is...Peter Lorre?! Easy. One says, “Sign me up!”
Such is the case with the 1944 noirish chiller THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS, now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
It's based on a deliciously sinister more-twists-than-a-pretzel novel by Eric Ambler, wartime America’s thriller author du jour. After Casablanca, Warners knew that any suspense pic with an international setting would be a project suitable for the green light-plus column.
To this end, they once again reunited Casablanca's supporting stars Sydney Greenstreet (top-billed) and Lorre (fourth-billed, but really the lead...and, if one wants to stretch it, the hero). DIMITRIOS would be the second of five post-Maltese Faclon/Casablanca teamings of Greenstreet and Lorre – and, for many mystery buffs, their best.
The story unravels its 95-minute narrative at a relentless pace, rarely slowing down to allow viewers to catch their breath. It opens exotically in Istanbul in 1938, and eventually relocates its obsessed denizens to Athens, Solia, Geneva and, finally, Paris (at Warners, they always had Paris).
When the bloated corpse of master criminal Dimitrios Makropoulos washes up on a beach, it’s like manna from heaven for visiting mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (Lorre). Leyden's fame captures the interest of investigating official and celebrity groupie Colonel Haki – an Ambler recurring character (Journey into Fear), sometimes an integral participant but here a magnificent supporting player (and we do mean player: Haki's a notorious womanizer, an occasionally corrupt but intrinsically decent human paradox). If Ambler’s forte was bathroom graffiti, it would likely comprise: Wanna good time? Call Colonel Haki.
Haki represents the first I-kinda-like-this-guy example of DIMITRIOS's addictive rogue's gallery cast. Virtually everyone in this movie is a noted screen mountebank. And, more so than in any other movie I can recall, they're all so Cuddles Sakall lovable – Haki being a prime case. He's portrayed by Kurt Katch, usually the sadistic Nazi in approximately five million 1940s war pics.
Haki intrigues Leyden with his colorful dossier on Dimitrios – an “evil genius” (to quote a cast member) who has eluded the law all over Europe since the early 1920s. To this end, Leyden attempts to track down those who knew Makropoulos, compiling notes for a true-crime tome...that he all-too-soon discovers he may never live to complete.
Leyden's travels introduce him to a variety of unscrupulous con artists, skanks, enemy agents, blackmailers and other delightful “citizens of the world.” And they ARE delightful. Victor Francen regales Lorre with his tales of Dimitrios's abilities as a seducer, embezzler, and revered practitioner of his vocation's remorseless code. Lorre is stunned how even those who were screwed (figuratively and literally) by Makropouplos still perversely admire him (although as one lady of dubious honor reveals, it was a love fueled by fear). Dimitrios Makropoulous, via his many masks, was a spy, a smuggler, a pimp, a traitor, a murderer and a politician (okay, I'm making that last one up – no one could sink that low!).
Venturing into a dive housing drunken, ravaged Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson), Leyden is told (via one of the pic's remarkable flashbacks) of the woman’s fall (courtesy of Dimitros) from spectacular young whore to creaky-old-before-her-time whore (there's a definite von Sternberg/Dietrich vibe via the smoky nightclub atmosphere, stupendously shimmering with sleaze). It's all reminiscent of Dorothy Comingore's moment of cinematic glory in Citizen Kane (perhaps not all that accidental, as the aforementioned Haki was impersonated by none other than Orson Welles in the previous year's adaptation of Journey into Fear, which Welles also unofficially directed).
But it's the fortuitous meeting with the outrageously untrustworthy Mr. Peters (Greenstreet) that constitutes the most iffy screen partnership since Martin & Lewis. At the drop of a hat, Greenstreet can swerve from loyal companion to gun-threatening sociopath. Peters’s fascination with Dimitrios comprises a scheme to net a princely sum of a million francs (granted, which in Greenstreet's case may actually be of the hot dog variety). Together the pair forms a volatile partnership – an unwise move on Leyden's behalf since Peters is a total screwball and Makropoulos may or may not have been that decomposed corpse after all.
But who is this embodiment of horror incarnate – this monstrous post-Code evocation of pre-Code Warren William? Why it’s Zachary Scott, in perhaps the most audacious debut in movie history.
Scott, who can add stealing scenes to his catalog of crimes, nearly leaves Lorre in the dust. It's easy to see why his dominant presence in THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS high-tailed him up the scumbag ladder to interact with the obvious next formidable foe, Joan Crawford.
Scott's oily charm is unsurpassed; I swear this dude doesn't walk through this movie – he slithers across the frame on his belly. His Dimitrios Makropoulos would likely be an honor graduate of the George Sanders Academy, if he hadn't been expelled for foul play. He's that foul (undoubtedly his favorite candy is a Cadbury Bar)! Finally, how can you go wrong with a movie whose remaining conglomeration of insincere mugs feature John Abbott, Steven Geray, Florence Bates and Eduardo Ciannelli? Ya can't!
Okay, you get the message. I really worship this movie's mantra of “No Redeeming Social Values.” And it just gets better with every screening.
Director Jean Negulesco did a fantastic job siphoning his skills in thespian chemistry to assure that all the scum rises to the top. Frank Gruber, too, outdid himself with his screenplay (based on the Ambler novel A Coffin for Dimitrios). While the script is chock full of sardonic asides (a pathetic Dimitrios-induced suicide is sloughed off with a waspy “It's times like this one needs a sense of humor”), it was Lorre's inspired ad-libbing that often ruled the day. Negulesco explained that the brilliant actor instinctively knew when things were going slightly slack. He'd shout quiet lines and whisper the ones requiring exciting fervor. And it worked. But mostly, during these moments, he'd supply some improvised verbal by-play. This is especially evident in an exchange between Leyden and Peters wherein the corpulent co-conspirator lays out a plan to escape “…instantly to the Indies.” “What about me?” shouts Lorre mockingly, “I don’t feel like going instantly to the Indies!” The piece de resisitance, however, is in response to a police query. “He was my friend,” exclaims Lorre, then appending this statement with a rapid, “Well he wasn't my friend, but he was a nice man.” [NOTE: it’s advisable to read these bits out loud in Lorre’s voice to fully appreciate their jolly effect].
According to Negulesco, Lorre extended these “improvs” to the crew. On a particularly lethargic day, he snuck up behind d.p. Arthur Edeson and let out a blood-curdling scream. Edeson jumped away from the camera mount, tossing a light meter into the air. “Oh, I'm sorry,” said Lorre apologetically. “I was rehearsing for the next scene. I hope I didn't frighten you.”
The music likewise deserves a special mention, as it represents the combined artistry of two maestros. The score is by Adolph Deutsche with arrangements by Jerome Moross. Musical pedigree doesn't get much better than that. It's a well-known fact that composers frequently steal from themselves; bizarrely, Deutsche's background music in one scene includes passages he'd use as the main theme a decade later for Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer. Thus, it's quite macabre (but, in a crazy way, sort of apt) for film music fans to hear this dark depiction of society's underbelly bristling with strains of “Breezin' Along with the Breeze.”
The Warner Archive 35MM transfer of THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is crisp, clean and offers beautiful monochrome contrast. Edeson's superb camerawork is a noir pip-a-roo and probably didn't necessitate Lorre's creative “scare the crap out of you” technique. Nevertheless it's always appreciative to have alternative input options. The mono audio is suitably reverberates with an eerie rendering of creepy sound effects (footsteps, door slams, gunshots).
The accompanying trailer cements its connection to The Maltese Falcon. Greenstreet, who hosted the coming attractions to Huston's 1941 triumph, gives a repeat performance, addressing the audience with the important announcement of “...another tale to tell...”
An endorsement of villainy, chicanery and unbridled gonif-fry, THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is worthy of the subtitle Swindler's List. A word of warning: this valentine to the nefarious histrionics of Lorre, Scott and Greenstreet could be charmful to your health.
THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. CAT # 883316781524. SRP: $19.95
Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection [www.warnerarchive.com].