(1941) Directed by Robert Florey; Written by Allen Vincent and Paul Jarrico; Story by Arthur Levinson; Based on the radio play Interim, by Thomas Edward O'Connell; Starring: Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe, George E. Stone and James Seay; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Sorry for you? It has nothing to do with you. It’s me! Me, my face! If you could see my face, you would feel sorry for me! People who look at me, they see a mask, artificial. But the face behind the mask, it’s mutilated, hideous. A horrible nightmare out of which I can never awake.” – Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre)
Humans are, by and large, visually oriented beings. We base so much upon first impressions, (specifically how attractive or unattractive someone appears), that we tend to overlook the attributes that matter most. It seems we have a natural tendency to reward those who possess attractive physical traits, while rejecting those whose appearance doesn’t fall within a certain narrow range. The Face Behind the Mask explores one man’s personal hell as his world collapses. Shot by director Robert Florey* in only 12 days, the brisk 69-minute crime film is a flawed, yet ideal showcase for Peter Lorre’s formidable talents.
* Fun Fact #1: Before James Whale and Boris Karloff were attached to the seminal 1931 film, Florey wrote the first draft of the Frankenstein script and directed tests of Bela Lugosi as the monster.
Lorre plays eager Hungarian immigrant Janos Szabo, who’s looking forward to a new life in the United States. As he approaches New York harbor,* Janos admires the Statue of Liberty with awe and reverence, as a symbol embodying the land of opportunity. He hopes to work hard and earn enough money so his fiancée can make the trek across the Atlantic to be with him. There are some amusing moments as he struggles with the intricacies of the English language, while attempting to find a place to stay. In one fateful instant, his dreams unravel when his face is horribly burned in a flophouse fire. Disfigured and penniless, his hopes evaporate as one door after another is slammed in his face. The first person to show him any compassion is, oddly enough, small-time criminal Dinky (George E. Stone), He convinces Janos to carry on, despite his physical appearance, encouraging him to pursue other avenues for earning money. Inexorably, Janos slides into a life of crime. Adept with his hands, he finds he has a knack for getting in and out of places undetected.
* Fun Fact #2: The scene was a reenactment of sorts of his arrival in the U.S., in 1934, as an Austro-Hungarian immigrant. His initial difficulties with the language of his adopted country recall Lorre’s experience learning to speak English phonetically on the set of Hitchcock’s production of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
We only catch a brief glimpse of Janos’ mangled face when his bandages are removed in the hospital. In subsequent scenes he appears mostly with his back to the camera (a concession to the censors). After a plastic surgeon informs Janos that reconstructive surgery is virtually impossible and prohibitively expensive, he settles for the next best thing, a lifelike mask* based on a photograph. The subtle makeup by Ernie Parks (employing white face and tape) is effective and unsettling. We can clearly see Lorre’s face, but it resembles a facsimile, creating an uncanny quality. Of course, the “mask” enables Lorre to display a full range of expressions (one of the film’s many liberties, considering the character’s facial musculature was damaged beyond repair).
* Fun Fact #3: The mask’s $400 price tag, as quoted in the film, would be equivalent to roughly $8,200 in 2023 dollars.
It’s a testament to Lorre’s acting chops that he adds depth and subtlety to a B-movie role that many other actors would sleepwalk through. Janos mercurial temperament ranges from sweet to menacing, and everything in between. Even at his most maniacal, however, he never fails to engender our sympathies. Lorre embodies the utter torment of a man consumed by self-loathing, forced to abandon his ideals to survive. He makes it clear to the audience that the criminal lifestyle doesn’t suit him. Reminiscent of The Man Who Laughs (1928), Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes) a blind girlfriend who loves him just the way he is. She brings out his better attributes, prompting him to leave his thievery (along with his criminal associates) behind. But it’s a prison of his own making – one can’t escape the criminal underworld so easily.
Most of the other characters are one-note, especially the thugs in his gang, and Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) an Irish cop with a heart of gold (sigh). Evelyn Keyes does the best she can with an underwritten role, basically the yin to Janos’ yang. Displaced crime boss Jeff Jeffries (James Seay) is like a coiled viper, ready to sink his fangs into anyone who gets too close. He reluctantly acquiesces to Janos’ leadership, but only temporarily. After he discovers an old card with O’Hara’s phone number, he thinks Janos is a police informant (Wouldn’t you know it? In a plot-convenient twist, O’Hara is the same cop on the case of the robberies).
The Face Behind the Mask relies on a few too many time-worn clichés. When Janos’ face is initially revealed, a nurse screams hysterically (as a health professional, wouldn’t she be used to this sort of thing?). In another scene, at the exact moment he turns on a radio, there’s a plot-specific news bulletin about his group’s robbery spree. The film’s climax requires a healthy suspension of belief, as he somehow pulls the wool over his old gang’s eyes as the pilot of their getaway plane.*
* Fun Fact #4: The remote Arizona desert locale is actually the Sand Dunes in Oxnard, California.
Not quite film noir, nor a horror film, The Face Behind the Mask challenges the old aphorism, “Looks aren’t everything.” We are quick to condemn those who fall outside an arbitrary norm, and not so quick to empathize with the plight of others. While the movie is rife with creaky plot elements and clichéd characters, Lorre’s committed performance provides enough depth and pathos to make up for any deficits. It’s a mediocre film with a superb performance at its core, making this a must-see for Peter Lorre aficionados.
Source for this article: Arrow Blu-ray commentary by Alan K. Rode.