Happy Birthday Peter Lorre: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (Columbia 1941)

In honor of Cracked Rear Viewer’s second anniversary, I’m re-presenting my first post from June 26, 2015. I’ve re-edited it and added some pictures, something I didn’t know how to do at first. My, how times change! Anyway, I hope you enjoy this look at an early noir classic. (Coincidentally, this is also Mr. Lorre’s birthday!)

The sinister star Peter Lorre was born in Hungary on June 26, 1904. He became a big screen sensation as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), and like many Jews in Germany at the time, fled the Nazi regime, landing in Britain in 1933. Lorre worked with Alfred Hitchcock there in the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, then immigrated to America, starring in films like MAD LOVE  , CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and the Mr. Moto series. In 1940, the actor starred in what many consider the first film noir, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. The next year Lorre appeared in another early noir, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, directed by the underrated Frenchman Robert Florey. In it Lorre plays a young Hungarian immigrant like himself, only under much, much different circumstances.

Janos Szabo has come to America to find work and live the American dream. He’s befriended by police Lt. O’Hara ( Don Beddoe ), who buys the naïve newcomer a five dollar lunch and directs him to the Excelsior Palace, a low rent hotel. When another border’s negligence causes the joint to go up in flames, Janos is trapped inside, and suffers a horrible disfigurement.

O’Hara feels responsible for the poor guy’s plight and writes a message on one of his calling cards for Janos to contact him when he’s released from the hospital. Now unable to find work due to his terribly scarred visage, Janos goes to the waterfront, contemplating suicide. He meets up with a petty crook named Dinky, who takes a liking to Janos. Dinky has a safe cracking job lined up but falls ill, and asks Janos to take his place. The Hungarian, good with his hands, takes care of business. When Dinky’s former comrades show up wanting to know why they weren’t in on the score, the four decide to form a crime gang, with Janos (now nicknamed Johnny) as the ringleader. A crime wave ensues, baffling the police, and putting O’Hara under pressure to end the larcenous spree quickly as possible.

Janos wants the illicit dough so he can have plastic surgery and restore his features. A rubber mask is made from his passport photo for him to wear until the doctor returns. When the doc (Frank Reicher, KING KONG’s   Captain Englehorn)  finally does see Janos, he informs him the facial nerves have suffered too much damage, and it would take fifteen years before any progress could be made!

Disheartened, Janos leaves the doctor’s office, where he (literally) bumps into Helen Williams. Helen is blind, but she can sense the goodness still inside the scarred master criminal. Eventually, Janos comes clean to her about his face, but not his illegal activities. Helen is played by the beautiful Evelyn Keyes , best known as “Scarlet O’Hara’s Younger Sister” (the name of her autobiography) in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now in love with Helen, and with plenty of money stashed away, Janos decides to leave his life of crime behind and settle down in the country. This doesn’t sit well with his former cronies, especially Jeff, the gang’s new leader. When the cop’s calling card (remember?) is found in Janos’s old desk, they fear their former boss has turned stool pigeon. The gang beats and tortures Dinky, who knows Janos’s whereabouts, and force him to spill the beans. Jeff and the crew pay a visit to Janos and his new bride, and while Jeff delivers a warning, the gang plants a bomb in his car, connected to the radio. Dinky gets dumped to the side of the road, badly beaten and shot, but manages to get to a phone and warn Janos. But it’s too late. While Helen’s unpacking the car, she wants to hear some music, turns on the radio, and KA-BOOM! She sadly dies in Janos’s arms.

Dinky’s still alive though, and tells Janos the gang has chartered a plane and are going on the lam. They take to the air and head west, unaware that Janos has ambushed the pilot and is flying the plane. He lands them smack in the middle of the Arizona desert and tells them he’s stranding them all there to die a slow, painful death. Soon after, O’Hara gets a hot tip and flies west to discover a gruesome tableau. The gang members are all dead, including Janos, who’s been tied to the plane’s wing. O’Hara finds an explanation note in his little friend’s pocket, along with the five bucks for the lunch O’Hara bought him long ago.

Lorre is superb as a man trapped in circumstances beyond his control, showing his wide range of emotion as an actor. Keyes is also good as the doomed Helen, proving she would’ve been a much bigger star with better roles. THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK features plenty of Familiar Faces from Columbia’s roster of contract players, including George E. Stone , Cy Schindell, John Tyrell , and George McKay. (The name Janos, by the way, was obviously inspired from the Roman god Janus, always depicted with two faces!) Peter Lorre went on to become one of the screen’s busiest character actors, appearing in classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , THREE STRANGERS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and many, many more. He ended his career working alongside Vincent Price in a string of Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe thrillers before succumbing to a stroke on March 23, 1964 at age 59. He left a legacy of fantastic film work, and THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK gave him one of his best starring roles. Fans of Lorre and those who want to see the beginnings of what became known as film noir will want to watch this gripping little crime drama. Happy birthday, Mr. Lorre!

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