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THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (Warner Archives)

By • Jun 1st, 2016 •

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DVD review by Roy Frumkes

An engaging, successful noir that I’m already looking forward to revisiting.

When Sydney Greenstreet crosses the room (3:20) in BACKGROUND TO DANGER, the composer ‘mickey mouse’s’ his footsteps as if he’s walking in fudge. Demeaning and foolish, and inappropriate since he’s supposed to be the villain of the piece. Whereas, when he leaves Peter Lorre’s hotel room, 43:25 into THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS, the score may be equally off-putting, but the use of a bassoon at least makes it less ridiculous. Filmmusic is often the first thing to date in otherwise decent Hollywood films, but Adolph Deutsch’s MASK cues are better than Frederick Hollander’s. We sense that director Negulesco cared about this aspect of post-production, whereas Raoul Walsh, for whatever reason – possibly studio control, possibly having done the film as an assignment, possibly even having moved on to his next project and been unavailable by the time the composer was brought in… whatever the explanation there’s no sense that he had any input at all as far as the scoring was concerned.

The confrontation between Greenstreet and Lorre in the hotel room is the glorious centerpiece of this film. Two consummate character actors enjoying themselves, extracting every odd and unexpected nuance from the material, two master scene-stealers, stealing the scene back and forth from each other without a hint of jealousy or malice. After all, they did seven films together after THE MALTESE FALCON, this being # 4. If there’d been rancor between them, word would have gotten around and persisted over the years.

Granted, the scene isn’t quite as good as the final, brilliant 15-minute scene from FALCON to which the general concept of MASK is indebted. There are logic problems, and there are lines that are too similar to ones in FALCON, spoken by Greenstreet almost as if he were indulging in trademark phrases designed to delight his fans. But still, the boys pull it off in grand style, and much to our delight.

Curiously, when Lorre, having listened to Greenstreet’s story, accuses him of being mad (as in insane), it sounds like he’s doing a spot-on impression of Sabu, who uses the same word in the same way in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. An Indian accent coming out of an Hungarian actor? Strange how close their voices are at times.

Maestro Negulesco’s later, 50s films, including THREE COINS IN A FOUNTAIN, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, and THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR, are stodgy and dull by comparison. This one, perhaps seen as ‘B’ material in ‘44, is more fun and much more visually energetic than those larger prestige pieces. Reminds me of Otto Preminger, who made all those wonderful noirs (LAURA, FALLEN ANGEL, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, etc.) but didn’t think highly of them, and went on, in the 50s and 60s, to do a series of bloated, self-important works, a few of them quite good, but none of them (maybe ANATOMY OF A MURDER) equal to his Fox noir years with Dana Andrews and Robert Mitchum. Stanley Kramer fits the paradigm as well. Tight little films in the 40s and early 50s – THE SNIPER, CHAMPION, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON… then suddenly in the mid-50s his brain kicked into pretentious mode. I admit I like INHERIT THE WIND, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, SHIP OF FOOLS, and ON THE BEACH (I still have my very formal-looking invitation to the premiere of ON THE BEACH tucked away somewhere), and I don’t like IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION, and even GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. But those earlier ones… They were lean and terrific.

Negulesco directed three of the Lorre/Greenstreet pairings (THE CONSPIRATORS and THREE STRANGERS are the others). They don’t feel as comfortable as this one. Not that I’m cutting this one a get-out-of-jail-free pass: Zachary Scott in his debut performance grows on you, as I suppose the director wanted him to, as he climbs the ladder of sociopathic success. But the flashbacks of him in the first half of the film are stilted and unconvincing. It’s the people he bilks (Faye Emerson, Victor Francen) who lend these scenes their credibility. In the second half, opposite his latest target – Steven Geray as a pitiful public servant – he is finally able to hold his own against the actor playing his victim.

Whereas the Falcon of John Huston’s film was a real, solid object, the ‘mask’ of Negulesco’s story is the description of Scott’s chameleon-like evolution as a thug. Also reversed, MASK’s third act pays off in a way that THE MALTESE FALCON (intentionally and successfully) fails to.

And can someone tell me why Greenstreet is billed over Lorre in these films? Was credit placement determined by weight? Lorre was in the film as often and with as much screen time as his corpulent co-star.

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