Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is an American thriller directed by Jean Negulesco that was released in July 1944.  It is based on a novel by Eric Ambler and stars Peter Lorre as a writer of detective fiction who learns about the death of an underworld figure called Dimitrios Makropoulos and, intrigued by his semi-mythic reputation for cunning and cruelty, determines to find out as much as he can for his next book.

The 1940s was a fertile period for character-driven, globe-trotting thrillers.  WW2 had no doubt introduced many cinemagoers to places they had never heard of before and rarely, if ever, seen depicted; for example, CASABLANCA [1942] is set in Morocco, ACROSS THE PACIFIC [1942] is set in Panama, BACKGROUND TO DANGER [1943] in Ankara, Turkey, and THE CONSPIRATORS [1944] in Lisbon, Portugal.  CASABLANCA of course was an enormous hit and therefore set the template for most of the films that followed, either in terms of plot or personnel.

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is slightly different however.  It has an exotic setting, true, and it also uses Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet from CASABLANCA; but it isn't really interested in heroism, self-sacrifice or romance.  Indeed, all the characters are self-serving to one degree or another and delineated essentially by how far they are prepared to go to get what they want.  This degree of cynicism pushes the film away from romantic adventure and a lot closer to film noir territory.

Zachary Scott as Dimitrios
Also like film noir, DIMITRIOS uses the flashback to tell its story.  This film is structured as a series of flashbacks illustrating episodes in the life of Dimitrios as told to Lorre by people who were involved; that's very much a borrow from CITIZEN KANE [1941].  Each episode reveals a further lead for Lorre to follow up and these take him from one European city to another: Athens, Sofia, Geneva and Paris.  It is noir in style too: the contrast between the bright light of the Mediterranean contrasting with the murky shadows and alleys to hint at the shades of morality we are watching.  The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson who can be considered something of a pioneer of the style, at least in the US.  He shot John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON [1941] and all the films I mentioned above, except BACKGROUND TO DANGER.

DIMITRIOS is notable, as that old curmudgeon Leslie Halliwell pointed out, for being entirely populated by character parts - there are no romantic leads here.  Peter Lorre was a star, certainly, but he was famous for his supporting roles.  Similarly, Sydney Greenstreet was a very popular actor but he was no leading man.  Zachary Scott went on to enjoy some degree of success but this was his first film.

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