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Noir-vember 2015: The Face Behind the Mask

Posted by martinteller on November 10, 2015

Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is a wide-eyed Hungarian watchmaker newly arrived in New York City. He’s full of dreams, hoping to earn enough to bring over his fianceé. On his first day, things are already looking bright. He makes a friend, police detective Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). He finds a reasonable place to live, a resident hotel. And he gets a job, washing dishes in the hotel cafe. But that night, a fire rages, and Janos’s face is horribly disfigured. No one will look at him or talk to him, much less give him a job. At his most destitute, he meets the genial Dinky (George E. Stone), a two-bit chiseler. Dinky coaxes him into a life of crime, and armed with his mechanical skills and a prosthetic mask, “Johnny” becomes rich. Rich and hardened. But then he meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), a girl who sees the real Janos… despite her blindness.

I’m giving this a “good” rating, but it’s on the edge of meh. This is an early noir, coming right between two important Peter Lorre pictures: Stranger on the Third Floor (considered by many to be the first noir) and The Maltese Falcon (generally regarded as the first “major” noir, and undeniably a landmark of the genre). This one isn’t nearly as impressive or memorable as either, but it’s elevated by Lorre’s performance. He can play ruthless with a chilling edge and he can play earnest with endearing charm, and here he gets to do both. He’s fully engaging as both the naive, lovable Janos and the cold, quick-tempered Johnny.

The movie runs a lean 68 minutes. I probably gave away too much of the plot, but that’s what happens when you don’t introduce the leading lady until halfway through the film. The story doesn’t pack many surprises, but it is abnormally bleak for the time. The ending is really dour, although a couple of the details are pretty contrived or farfetched. It just felt like something was missing from this film. The performances are all fine (I especially liked Stone) and the cinematography is fine. I think it just needed a bit more fleshing out to be effective. More development of the Keyes character and her relationship with Janos. Less suddenness in the ups and downs of the story.

For a 1941 film, this is an unusually cynical look at the promise of the “American Dream”, and fans of Lorre will find much to enjoy. It just doesn’t quite come together. The script needs work. Rating: Good (71)


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