My Review of ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’ (1944)
Warning: This review includes possible spoilers.
This movie invites comparisons to so many others that it lends the story an almost comical air. Before I go into that, let’s review the basic plot.
We open with a shot of a dead body washed up on a shore in Istanbul. The body is identified as Dimitrios Makropoulos, based solely on a label sewn in his jacket. One that rather conveniently states his name, as if the jacket were worn while at summer camp. From this, it’s easy to assume that the Istanbul police are either too 1) lazy, 2) stupid, or 3) corrupt to attempt a proper identification.
Be that as it may, our protagonist is Cornelius Leyden, a Dutch mystery writer (played by Peter Lorre, in one of his most winning roles, in my Humble Opinion), who’s drawn into learning more about the presumably dead arch-criminal. Because that’s what he was, according to one of Leyden’s fans, who just happens to be a colonel with the Turkish police. Leyden figures there’s a story to be unearthed here.
So Leyden sojourns all over Europe, following up leads, taking notes, telling everyone he’s a writer (because he is). Many clues and leads are provided by a certain Mr. Peters (played in his usual deceptively chummy manner by Sydney Greenstreet), with whom Leyden keeps crossing paths. Peters is the sort who keeps popping up to offer a continuing stream of helpful hints for Leyden on where to go next. Yet, Leyden never quite catches on that Peters’ behavior amounts to stalking. So … a bit of a naive writer.
Well, between the thoroughly despicable Dimitrios (whose Extreme Nautiness we witness in flashbacks) and the less-than-squeaky-clean Peters, Leyden finds himself amid a fine pack of thieves, spies, and blackmailers.
This film noir is (probably with the benefit of hindsight) almost a parody or homage to a few other movies. The pairing of Lorre and Greenstreet begs for comparison to the one in The Maltese Falcon. Those two plus the locations — think Casablanca. And, of course, the despicable, presumably dead man and his former paramour, plus the crime writer protagonist should sound familiar to film noir fans. At least, the ones who’ve seen The Third Man. There are whole scenes that appear to be callbacks (or call forwards?) to those films. Shades of various movies to come crop up, now and then. For example, the chase scene in the Paris Metro. Reminiscent of … Charade? The Third Man? The French Connection? 🙂
Otherwise, the film is probably most notable for its string of exotic locations (worthy of a James Bond film) and its focus on character over gunplay, although there’s enough of the latter to make it interesting. It also marked Zachary Scott’s movie debut in the role of Dimitrios. The movie’s casting is perfect. Scott’s intense gaze and slightly hawkish features bring to mind a more polished version of Lee Van Cleef.
Lorre and Greenstreet play off each other as well as I’ve ever seen. (Although, I did have to restrain myself from calling him “Joel Cairo” as I watched.) In fact, Lorre’s sensitive portrayal is a big reason I liked the movie. I also particularly enjoyed seeing Lorre in a lead role instead of the usual sidekick, lunatic, or second-rate hood.
But is this the stuff that dreams are made of? Perhaps not, but it is great entertainment with an ending that seals its place in the film noir canon.
This is a movie well worth watching. But if you’re a diehard cinephile, you may end up going a bit MST3K on this one. 🙂
Originally published at http://debbimacktoo.wordpress.com on December 5, 2019.