FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Mask of Dimitrios
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Henry Blanke; directed by Jean Negulesco; screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on a novel by Eric Ambler; music by Adolph Deutsch; cinematography Arthur Edeson; edited by Frederick Richards; set decoration by Walter Tilford; starring Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Victor Francen, and Steven Geray. DVD, B&W, 95 min., 1944. A Warner Archive release.

The Mask of Dimitrios was adapted from a 1939 novel by Eric Ambler—considered one of Britain’s best pre-WWII spy-thriller writers—a precursor of Cold War spy narratives by Len Deighton and the estimable John le Carré. Directed in a plodding manner by Jean Negulesco (How to Marry a Millionaire), the film is set in motion by a Turkish Police Colonel Haki recounting a story to a visiting Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (a low-keyed, relatively diffident Peter Lorre) about an elusive arch criminal, Dimitrios (Zachary Scott in his first film role), whose supposed murdered body has washed ashore. Leyden is so fascinated (grist for a new novel) by the tale of Dimitrios that he willfully sets out from Istanbul to discover the details of his life.

Nobody mourns or has a good word to say for this amoral rogue and mysterious double crosser. He has betrayed everybody with whom he has been in close contact. His villainous deeds range from thievery, borrowing money from a lover and disappearing, to betraying a smuggling gang, and topping it off by committing treason.

The treasonous plot involves Dimitrios manipulating Karel Bulic (a quietly affecting Steven Geray) to lose a large sum of money gambling. Bulic is the embodiment of a repressed, meek, minor Yugoslav government clerk—a born victim with a younger, beautiful wife, who predictably treats him with disdain. His need to repay the gambling losses is used by Dimitrios and his associates to pressure him into stealing charts of Yugoslav minefields, and Bulic is left off-screen to ultimately confess to the authorities and commit suicide—exiting as he lived, barely leaving a ripple. He’s the one character in the film that touches one on a human level.

The Mask of Dimitrios features stylish performances by two of the most memorable actors of the 1940s, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet

The Mask of Dimitrios features stylish performances by two of the most memorable actors of the 1940s, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet

Meanwhile, Dimitrios, as his wont, double crosses his confederates by selling the charts to the Italian government. Those narrative twists and convoluted plots, sometimes set off by awkward flashbacks, are the centerpiece of the film, and despite the suggestion of geopolitical tensions in pre WWII Europe, the film never touches on the nature of the political storms that would soon embroil all of Europe.

The film’s criminal plots, however, are of much less interest than the arch, stylish performances by Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who play skillfully and smartly off each other—just as they do in nine other films, some much, much better than this one, like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. The bulky, graceful Greenstreet portrays Peters, a former smuggling associate of Dimitrios (also betrayed by him) who parlays an alliance with Lorre (Leyden) for them to work together to discover the whereabouts of this master criminal.

Greenstreet is both amiable and a touch sinister, and delivers his lines with eloquent panache—repetitively and ironically stating, “There’s not enough kindness in the world.” Lorre is quick-witted, earnest, and persistent and, despite the obstacles he confronts, never gives up on his quest to discover who Dimitrios is. Both men pursue different goals. Greenstreet‘s Peters wants to blackmail and take revenge on Dimitrios if he finds him, while Lorre’s Leyden just wants to unravel the mystery of this man of multiple masks who beguiles him as a professional writer.

Almost none of the characters in this lighter variation on film noir demonstrate any moral sense. Leyden may not want money, but he is bedazzled rather than repelled by Dimitrios’s murderous manipulations. Most of the rest are involved in different levels of corruption and criminality. Although this is a noir with the usual play of light and shadow, it has little violence, and Leyden as the central figure is no Philip Marlowe—he’s more ineffectual and slightly comic than world-weary and cool.

Zachary Scott, who portrays Dimitrios, went on to specialize in cad and scoundrel roles (e.g., Mildred Pierce, 1945), and can be insidious and smarmy here, but never convinces us he’s a master criminal. The studio sets—nightclubs, trains, villas, and hotel rooms—are bland, and all the cities—Paris, Geneva, Sofia, Belgrade—Leyden travels to on his quest are interchangeable.

Besides the cleverly bantering Greenstreet/Lorre duo, whose characters develop affection for each other, there is little that is distinctive about this pedestrian film—neither its style nor its characterization. The Mask of Dimitrios is just one more film noir that lacked the formal imagination and emotional power of the best directors of the genre like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. It may have had a bit of charm, but for me the words of novelist and screenwriter Richard Price (who wrote some revisionist versions of Forties film noir) seem an apt description of the film. Price saw the majority of film noir as nothing more than “run and gun filmmaking,” that is built on ridiculous, convoluted plots containing a lot of darkness.”

To purchase The Mask of Dimitrios, click here.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books on film, most recently the fourth edition (with Al Auster) of Film and Society Since 1945.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine