Director: Robert Flores

Writers: Paul Jarrico & Allen Vincent (from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell)

Country: USA

Runtime: 69 mins

A tour de force of acting from Peter Lorre as a tragic immigrant whose life is changed by a fire

According to the British Film Institute’s programme notes, Peter Lorre didn’t think much of the script for The Face Behind the Mask. He would often be the worse for the drink in the afternoon, leading director Robert Flores to get as many as possible of his scenes shot in the morning. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Lorre gives an utterly sublime performance, ranging from happy and innocent through to mean and ruthless, and ultimately loving and tragic.

Adapted from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, the story concerns Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre), a newly-arrived Hungarian immigrant in New York. Happy and optimistic, he makes the acquaintance of police Lieutenant James ‘Jim’ O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who helps him find accommodation. But disaster strikes: there is a fire in the hotel and Janos’s face is badly disfigured. Unable to find work because of the way he looks, Janos finds himself helped and befriended by Dinky (George Stone), a crook with gang connections. Janos doesn’t want to become involved with the gang, but when Dinky is too ill take take part in a job Janos takes his place out of loyalty. Through his earnings from crime Janos is able to purchase a fairly lifelike mask so that people can bear to look at him. However, surgery to repair his face his still beyond his means.

A watchmaker, Janos turns out to have technical skills that are valuable to the gang. By dint of his intelligence and ability he leads the gang on more jobs and rises to become the leader, deposing the former boss Harry (Stanley Brown). However, money can’t buy everything and the doctors tell him his face is effectively beyond repair. But then Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), who is blind, and the two fall in love. Janos decides to put the world of crime behind him, but his past catches up with him when Harry gets the idea that Janos has betrayed them.

The one weakness of the film is right at the start. The events leading up to Janos’s disfigurement are a little too pat and rather rushed. However, once these scenes are out of the way the pacing improves and the story settles down. The relationships between Jarnos and Dinky, and between Jarnos and Helen, are deftly handled and convincing. But more than anything else, it is impossible not to be impressed by Peter Lorre’s performance. It is hard to think of another actor who, in the space of a single movie, could move so convincingly between comically naive innocence and frightening menace. The end of the film, when it comes, is truly touching.

Rating: 8/10.

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI Southbank, London, in September 2014.

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