This one comes recommended by Brian Saur of the mighty Rupert Pupkin Speaks – a fantastic film blog for people who simply adore cinema. He consistently shows love to a lot of underrated films from every era, which is how The Mask of Dimitrios came across my radar. This 1944 wartime noir from Romanian director Jean Negulesco reunites Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (the little man and the fat man, as they’re referred to in the trailer), and sorta reverses the characters they played in The Maltese Falcon. One’s the blackmailer, the other a sophisticated man of letters – together they’re out to trace the final years of globetrotting scoundrel Dimitrios Makropoulos!
Lorre stars as Cornelius Leyden, a Dutch mystery writer on holiday in Istanbul. At an upscale party he’s introduced to a fan, Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), head of the secret police. Thinking Leyden may be interested in some real life intrigue, Haki tells him about the corpse of a master criminal that’s recently washed ashore. The dead scoundrel is Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott), a slick sonuvabitch who made his living through “murder, treason, and betrayal.” Leyden is so intrigued by Haki’s stories about Dimitrios that he decides to trace the footsteps of the dead man in order to solve the case (as it were) of how such a suave bastard wound up stabbed to death on a beach.
As always, Lorre is freaking incredible. It’s great to see him play a decent human being, rather than a serpentine villain or total sissy. Leyden is a refined, cunning bloke who apparently can hold his liquor like a steel barrel. He drinks through the ENTIRE film! He gives Nick and Nora a run for their money! I guess he has time to pace himself because for the first two acts of the film Leyden essentially kicks back and listens to others tell tales about Dimitrios. Nobody has anything nice to say about the man, who constantly ripped people off (even women!) and made backstabbing a way of life. Still, Leyden is completely fascinated by him.
Then along came Greenstreet. Whenever Sydney Greenstreet walks onscreen, it’s time to throw away everything you thought you knew about the story. The man is the harbinger of narrative twists. As his girth consumes the frame, buckle up for some curve balls.
He plays Mr. Brown, a peculiar man who knows much about the finest hotels and restaurants in Europe. Brown cunningly inserts himself into Leyden’s investigation of Dimitrios. He wants to trace the crook’s footsteps as well, but he waits in the shadows and secretly allows Leyden to do most of the footwork. His motives are foggy, though it’s clear personal gain is on the agenda. Leyden doesn’t trust the big man (he did shove a pistol in his face after all), but the desire to connect the Dimitrios dots is strong enough to further drive his search for the truth.
The pairing of Lorre and Greenstreet is phenomenal. Both men are at the top of their games here and their chemistry is ridiculous at time. Not romantic chemistry, of course, but the way they play off each other and seem to have an instinct for how the other guy is going to move and speak – they work so goddamn well together.
The film’s structure includes several flashbacks, with Dimitrios taking over as lead. Zachary Scott was a newcomer to the screen when The Mask of Dimitrios hit theaters. He must’ve struck a chord because within a year he was landing big roles like slick dick Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce. Here he delivers a very nuanced performance – a dash of Errol Flynn, a pinch of Vincent Price. Dimitrios isn’t sympathetic whatsoever, but like Leyden says, he’s impossibly fascinating.
Negulesco has crafted a a tightly wound crime story – one that never loses its edge as it hops from Istanbul to Athens to Paris. As the flashbacks trace Dimitrios’ path, there’s the vibe of a globetrotting spy thriller. When we’re in the hands of Leyden, there’s some palpable film noir flavor. It’s a great combination and makes for a hugely entertaining genre bender.
The Mask of Dimitrios is available on DVD from the Warner Archive and I say it’s totally worth the money.
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