Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the charges being swept under the rug as “in the line of duty”. Nolan hides his ill-gotten gains under the porch of a model suburban dream home he’s thinking of buying for himself and fiancé Patty Winters.

The 25 G’s belong to gangster Packy Reed, who of course wants his dough back. Reed’s two menacing goons threaten Patty, but are stopped by Nolan’s partner Mark Brewster. Then Nolan learns there was a witness, a deaf mute old man, and goes to try and bribe the old geezer, but accidentally kills him instead. Mark is called to investigate and finds a note the geezer wrote implicating Nolan in the bookie’s death. Nolan now becomes a hunted man, with the squad leader putting all cops on the lookout, leading to Barney Nolan’s unavoidable date with destiny.

There’s some shocking violence in the scene where Nolan, getting drunk at an Italian restaurant with a local floozie, spots the goons who threatened Patty, and savagely pistol whips them both. The final scenes, where the hunted Nolan engages in a gun duel with a goon at a high school swim meet, then is ferociously gunned down himself by his police brethren, are also well staged. O’Brien directed one other feature, 1961’s MAN TRAP, while Koch went on to a long career as a director (BIG HOUSE USA, UNTAMED YOUTH , FRANKENSTEIN 1970 , BADGE 373), producer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FOUR FOR TEXAS , THE ODD COUPLE, AIRPLANE!), and a stint as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The cast is terse and tough, and includes John Agar as Nolan’s partner Mark, Emile Meyer as the no nonsense precinct captain, Claude Akins as one of the goons, and a blonde Carolyn Jones as the floozie. Sexy Marla English plays Patty; she’s best known for a pair of chillers, THE SHE CREATURE and VOODOO WOMAN. The rest of the cast list features Familiar Faces from the world of episodic TV: John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL), William Boyett (ADAM-12), Robert Bray (LASSIE), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Stafford Repp (BATMAN), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, STAR TREK’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”) and Vito Scotti, who was on just about every TV show made from the 50’s to the 70’s!

SHIELD FOR MURDER offers noir buffs a darkly good time, although I feel it’s definitely second-tier stuff. O’Brien and the cast make it worth watching, as does the intermittent outbursts of violence. Would I watch it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. You Dear Readers will have to decide for yourselves.

 

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Concrete Jungle: REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (United Artists 1975)

REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER usually gets lumped in with the plethora of 70’s cop films, but I viewed it as a neo-noir. It’s structure tells the tale mainly in flashback, from the participating character’s differing perspective, and is dark as hell. I’m sure co-screenwriters Abby Mann and Ernest Tidyman were well aware of what they were doing: both men were former Oscar winners (Mann for JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, Tidyman for THE FRENCH CONNECTION   ) familiar with the conventions of the genre. The solid cast features a powerhouse collection of 70’s character actors, led by Michael Moriarty’s patented over-the-edge performance as protagonist Bo Lockley.

Lockley is a young, idealistic cop caught up in circumstances beyond his control, snaring him in an inescapable downward spiral. The film opens with a pair of New York City detectives discovering the body of a young woman, who turns out to be one of their own, an undercover cop. Cut to a ruckus over at Saks’ 5th Avenue, where a disheveled Lockley, wrapped in a blanket, is being escorted from the building, charged with the murder, and put into the Bellevue Hospital Psych Ward.

The sensationalistic papers cry “Scandal!”, and the Commissioner (Stephen Elliot) assigns Internal Affairs Captain Strichter (Edward Grover) to untangle the mess. Through flashbacks, we, along with Strichter, uncover the truth. Undercover cop Patty Butler (Susan Blakely in her finest screen performance), disguised as a runaway teen called ‘Chicklet’, had infiltrated the life of known drug dealer ‘Stick’ Henderson to the point of being his live-in lover, without the permission of the powers that be. Only her superiors Lt. Hanson (Michael McGuire) and Capt. D’Angelo (Hector Elizondo) are aware she’s this deep undercover.

Hanson and D’Angelo look for a patsy to search for the missing “runaway”, and land on Lockley, a NYC Police ‘legacy’ who’s ill-suited to the job. Lockley’s been working with veteran ‘Crunch’ Blackstone (the amazing Yaphet Kotto), trying to learn the ways of the streets. The two men take different approaches to the job, with Blackstone’s pork-pie hat wearing, hard-assed cop a direct contrast to the compassionate, long-haired Lockley. Still, the older man develops a fondness for the naïve youngster.

Lockley takes his new assignment seriously, and almost blows Butler’s cover at a disco. He diligently tracks her to Stick’s apartment, where he discovers a cache of weapons slated for use by a black radical group. The cop and the dealer engage in a shoot-out, where Butler takes a fatal bullet from Lockley’s erratic barrage. A chase over the rooftops winds up with Lockley and Stick trapped in an elevator, surrounded by the law, with no chance of escape.

Michael Moriarty’s unhinged performance as Lockley foreshadows his work in Larry Cohen’s Q: THE WINGED SERPENT and THE STUFF. His Lockley is ill-suited for the job, and doesn’t understand that, as his mentor Crunch tells him, “Nothing is what it seems”. Tony King, the ex-football player who later became head of security for hip-hop legends Public Enemy, adds his menacing presence as Stick. Among the other Familiar Faces you’ll find Bob Balaban excelling as a legless street person, Richard Gere making his film debut as a lowlife pimp, and William Devane, Bebe Drake-Hooks, Dana Elcar, and Vic Tayback.

REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER was directed by Milton Katselas, more known as a Broadway producer/director and acting coach, whose filmography includes FORTY CARATS, BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE, and WHEN YOU COMIN’ BACK, RED RYDER?. He’s also known as a hard-core Scientologist, and was portrayed in the biopic SAL (about the actor Sal Mineo) by that film’s director, James Franco (which I’m sure my TSL colleague Lisa Marie Bowman will be interested in!). Cinematographer Mario Tosi (CARRIE, THE STUNT MAN) captures the gritty Times Square street life with a dark, gloomy eye, and Elmer Bernstein contributes a fine, sometimes even funky score. The neo-noir atmosphere and outstanding cast make this an interesting if not quite classic film that deserves a second look.

Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

Soapy Noir: A KISS BEFORE DYING (United Artists 1956)

A KISS BEFORE DYING is part soap opera, part film noir, and 100% 50’s kitsch! Based on the best selling debut novel by Ira Levin (who went on to give us ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), it’s also the debut of director Gerd Oswald (who went on to give us AGENT FOR HARM and BUNNY O’HARE !).  Lawrence Roman’s screenplay has some suspense, but his characters are all pretty dull and dumb, except for Robert Wagner’s turn as a charmingly sick sociopath.

Wagner is college student Bud Corliss, from the wrong side of the tracks, dating rich but naïve Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) to get his hands on dad’s copper mine loot. And when I say naïve I’m not just whistling Dixie; this girl’s downright dense! Bud, after learning she’s pregnant, decides the best thing to do is not marry her, but bump her off. He whips up some poison in the chem lab, then gets her to write a suicide note under the pretense of translating some Spanish for him. And she does! When Dorie fails to take her “prescription vitamins”, Bud lures her to the top of the Municipal Building, sweet talks her… then shoves her to her death! Woodward, in only her second picture, hated the role of clinging, gullible Dorie, and who can blame her? Fortunately, Miss Woodward did a lot better with her next film, 1957’s THE THREE FACES OF EVE, for which she won the Oscar.

With Dumb Dorie out of the way, psycho Bud sets his sights on her sister Ellen, since no one in the family has ever seen him. Ellen’s played by Virginia Leith, best known for her role as a head in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE . This time, Virginia gets to emote with her full body (and what a body it is, as Groucho Marx would say!). Her cold-ass daddy is cold-ass George Macready , who had made a career out of these type roles by now. Ellen, however, doesn’t believe Dorie committed suicide, and with the help of amateur sleuth Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter, looking avuncular in Clark Kent-ish hornrims and smoking a pipe), tracks down a suspect, an old flame of Dorie’s (seems the girl got around!).

The old flame, one Dwight Powell (played by COUNT YORGA himself, Robert Quarry ), tells Ellen he wrote down the address of Dorie’s newest beau, and goes to his flat to dig it up. Bud is waiting for him, gun in hand, and forces Dwight to type up a suicide note before shooting him. Now here’s what I don’t get – the guy’s got a gun on you, sure, but instead of taking a chance and yelling for help from the neighbors, you just write the damn thing and take it? Come on, you’re gonna get shot either way, at least TRY and do something, instead of sniveling (insert squeaky voice here) “No, please, don’t”!

Anyway, Bud gets away, and the case of Dorie’s death is now closed. Or is it? At Bud and Ellen’s engagement party, Gordon crashes in and informs her Dwight was playing tennis in Mexico on the night of Dorie’s murder, so he couldn’t possibly have killed her. Back to square one. But wait… Gordon spies Bud coming down the stairs, and recognizes him from around the ol’ campus. Calling his uncle the police chief, he finds out Bud was indeed involved with Dorie, and he and father tell Ellen. She doesn’t believe them until she tricks him at the Kingship Copper Mines, where Bud learns just what a bitch karma is and gets his just desserts before the fade-out.

Did I mention Mary Astor returned to the screen after a seven year absence to portray Bud’s mom? No? That’s probably because the part’s so small, and the great Miss Astor is thoroughly wasted in it. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is awash in vibrant Deluxe color, and it’s certainly a good-looking film, anyway. Lionel Newman’s lush score includes the jazzy theme “A Kiss Before Dying”. The film was remade in 1991 with Matt Dillon and Sean Young, and was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. A KISS BEFORE DYING is just begging for a proper remake, preferably one of those Lifetime Movies my friend Lisa Marie Bowman  is always writing about. Whadda ya say, Lifetime…

Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to find release, and believes God provides for his evangelism by pointing him toward widows with money to act as sacrifices. Powell is by turns charming and savage, ingratiating himself to the townspeople with his pious act in public, cold as the devil’s tail privately. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate”, enabling him to sermonize on the duality of man’s nature:

Listen to Mitchum’s pitch-perfect vocal cadence; he could fit right in as a cable network Southern preacher right now! The Rev has come to this idyllic West Virginia town after being incarcerated for car theft. His cellmate was Ben Harper ( Peter Graves ), a Depression Era man who robbed a bank to feed his family and killed two people in the process. Before being hanged, Harper let slip where he stashed the $10,000 from the crime. Only his two children know the secret, and Powell has ventured forth to do God’s work by finding out where the money’s hid. He woos and wins Harper’s widow Willa ( Shelley Winters ), but Harper’s son John immediately recognizes Powell for what he is, a con man come to steal the ill-gotten gains Dad left behind.

Mitchum creates such a chilling character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, you’ll have no reason to cheer for him. On his wedding night, he berates his new bride for her carnal instincts, later murdering her with his switchblade in their bedroom after she learns the truth about him. The bedroom itself is designed to resemble a cathedral, their bed a sacrificial altar. He cajoles and threatens the kids, growling and howling like an animal, eyes blazing from their sockets like the devil himself. It’s a portrait of pure evil straight out of a horror movie, and Robert Mitchum proves all his talk about being a “one-note actor” was just blarney. But that’s Mitchum being Mitchum, a true artist who was so good at what he did he made it look easy.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by another great actor, Charles Laughton , who used the expressionistic style of silent film directors like F.W. Murnau and especially D.W. Griffith, to the point of casting Griffith star Lillian Gish in the pivotal role of Rachael Cooper, a farm widow who takes in stray youngsters, and becomes the salvation for the Harper children. Miss Gish stands toe-to-toe with Mitchum both in her character and in the acting department, the “Love” to Harry Powell’s “Hate”. The entire cast is superb, with James Gleason a standout as alcoholic “Uncle” Birdie, who discovers Willa’s body at the bottom of the Ohio River. Don Beddoe , Gloria Castillo, and Evelyn Varden also shine in their minor parts.

The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, and a disheartened Laughton never directed another film. It’s our loss, as his baroque stylings made THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER a masterpiece of cinematic art. Today it’s regarded as a true classic, and the performance of Robert Mitchum has a lot to do with that. Along with his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, Mitchum embodies evil unlike any other actor in film. Happy 100th birthday Bob; here’s to 100 more years of audiences enjoying your wonderful work!

For more on Mitchum this 100th birthday anniversary, follow these links:

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)

HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951)

MACAO (1952)

ANGEL FACE (1952)

THE RACKET (1951)

THUNDER ROAD (1958)

THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)

 

Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!

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!