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!

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (Columbia 1939)

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Bela Lugosi ( see yesterday’s post ) wasn’t the only horror icon who starred in a series of low-budget shockers. Boris Karloff signed a five picture deal with Columbia Pictures that was later dubbed the “Mad Doctor” series and, while several notches above Lugosi’s “Monogram Nine”, they were cookie-cutter flicks intended for the lower half of double feature bills. The first of these was THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, which sets the tone for the films to follow.

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Karloff plays Dr. Henry Savaard, inventor of a new surgical technique that requires the patient to die, then reviving him with a mechanical heart after performing the operation. This later became standard operating procedure during open-heart surgery, but back in 1939 was considered science fiction! Anyway, Savaard’s young assistant Bob agrees to go through the experimental procedure, but his girlfriend freaks out and calls the cops, claiming Savaard is about to murder him. The cops, along with a reporter named Scoop no less, barge into the doctor’s lab and interrupt things. The delay causes Bob’s death and Savaard is arrested for murder.

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We next get one of my favorite film devices, the spinning-newspaper-headlines montage! Savaard goes on trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to hang. Karloff gets to deliver a long, dramatic speech, which he does with his usual elegant style: “You who have condemned me, I know you’re kind. Your forebearers poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose only offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me and my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for years to come.” There’s more, but you get the gist, and King Boris delivers it with passion.

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Next, more spinning headlines! Savaard’s about to be executed, and donates his body to science, but what the officials don’t know is his corpse will be handed over to his loyal assistant Lang, who revives Savaard from the dead. Then… no, not spinning headlines, this time it’s calendar pages marking the passing of time. Six months go by, and six of the Savaard jurors have hung themselves… or have they? Scoop smells a scoop, and his editor encourages him to get the story: “Make it weird! Make it dramatic! And make it snappy!”. Scoop gets wind that the judge has invited the remaining jurors, along with the DA, the lead cop, and the freaked-out girlfriend, to meet that evening at Savaard’s old house. Of course, it’s a trap, and now all Savaard’s enemies are in one place so he can pick them off one by one….

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THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG isn’t a bad movie, though modern audiences will find the plot all too familiar. Boris is the glue that holds the thing together, and gives us a great performance. Others in the cast range from good to not-so-good. Lorna Gray’s in the latter category, in the thankless role of Savaard’s daughter Janet, who spends most of the picture in tears. Robert Wilcox as Scoop is just okay, no better or worse than any horror film hero. The Columbia Pictures stock company fills out the rest of the roster, including character favorites like Don Beddoe , Ann Doran, Roger Pryor, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Dick Curtis , John Tyrell, and a young James Craig.

Nick Grinde’s direction keeps things moving, and Karl Brown’s screenplay has several soliloquies for Karloff to deliver. Brown’s career stretched back to D.W. Griffith and BIRTH OF A NATION, and he was cinematographer on the silent classic THE COVERED WAGON. He did some directing, but is mostly remembered for his screenplays on these Columbia Karloffs and what’s arguably Bela’s worst Monogram, THE APE MAN. The remaining “Mad Doctor” films mostly follow suit: THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HAND, and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (the fifth in Karloff’s contract was THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, a spoof co-starring Peter Lorre ). They’re all okay, not on a par with Karloff’s Universal or RKO classics, just B-movies that’ll keep you entertained on a cold Halloween night.

Little Girl Lost: Marilyn Monroe in DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (20th Century Fox, 1952)

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Marilyn Monroe’s status as America’s #1 Sex Symbol saw her cast in lots of light, fluffy roles during the course of her career. But when given the chance, she proved she was more than just another pretty face. Marilyn’s acting chops shine like a crazy diamond in the 1952 film noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.

Marilyn plays Nell Forbes, a young woman new to New York. She’s obtained a babysitting job through her uncle, an elevator operator at a ritzy hotel. Nell’s an attractive woman, but right from the start we can tell there’s something slightly off about her. She seems haunted, her voice and mannerisms have a wounded quality. After putting her little charge Bunny to bed, Nell begins trying on the mother’s jewelry and kimono. She goes to the window when she hears a plane fly by, strangely attracted to the sound.

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In the hotel lounge, singer Lyn Leslie has broke off her relationship with pilot Jed Towers. Lyn wants more than Jed’s willing to give. Jed is a commitaphobe, the kind of guy who wants to have his cake and eat it, too. She calls him cold and callous, and she’s right. Jed’s a humorless, uptight male, and a bit of a prick. He goes to his room to drink alone, when he spies Nell across the way. Feeling frisky, Jed calls the room and strikes up a conversation, finally wrangling an invitation from her. As Nell applies lipstick, we see the scars on her wrists from an apparent suicide attempt. Jed goes over, and Nell tries to act sophisticated. She becomes infatuated when he tells her he’s a pilot. Bunny wakes up ,and Nell’s ruse is spoiled.

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Things go steadily downhill, as Jed leaves, and Nell becomes more and more unhinged. Her boyfriend had been a pilot that was killed on a flight to Hawaii. The suicide attempt led her to three years in an institution, and we discover she’s only recently been released. Nell’s tenuous hold on reality comes crashing down after Jed rebuffs her, and the film kicks into high gear as Nell sinks deeper and deeper into her madness.

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I won’t spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it. Instead, I’ll just tell you Marilyn Monroe is outstanding as Nell. Her vulnerable qualities at the film’s beginning give way to a creepy yet heartbreaking performance that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Nell is in turn clingy, violent, a practiced liar, and ultimately pitiable. Her loose grip on reality, coupled with her obvious bipolar traits, make Nell a danger to both herself and those around her. It’s a bravura showcase for Marilyn, one she rarely got, and she takes the ball and runs with it as the tragic Nell.

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Richard Widmark (The Swarm) is unlikable at first as Jed, but softens during the events of the movie. It’s a tricky role, but Widmark pulls it off. His ex-girlfriend Lyn is played by Anne Bancroft in her film debut. Elisha Cook Jr (Born to Kill, Blacula) is back in noir territory as Nell’s Uncle Eddie, giving another fine performance. The supporting cast features Jim Backus, Lurene Tuttle, Verna Felton, Don Beddoe (The Face Behind The Mask), and Donna Corcoran as Bunny. British director Roy Ward Baker is better known for his Hammer horrors (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, SCARS OF DRACULA, DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) than film noir, but does a good job leading the cast through a solid script by David Taradash (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), based on the novel Mischief  by mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong.

But it’s Marilyn Monroe’s show all the way. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is, along with 1953’s NIAGRA and 1960’s THE MISFITS, a chance to see her in a rare dramatic role. As much as I love her in musicals and comedies, I admire her even more in films that show her depth as an artist. It’s no wonder that, over fifty years after her untimely death, Marilyn is still popular from one generation to the next. She was THAT talented, and DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a must-see for fans of both her and the film noir genre.

Revisiting an Old Fiend: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK

Recently I switched from cable to DirecTV. As part of my package, I’ve officially joined the DVR generation. This is like being in heaven for an old movie buff like myself. Now I can record films of interest no matter what time they’re on and enjoy them at my leisure. Especially those older black & white gems that air mainly in the wee-wee hours. I can catch up with some classics I’ve only read about over the years but never had the opportunity to view, and those I only have vague memories of watching decades ago on snowy looking UHF channels. Continue reading “Revisiting an Old Fiend: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK”