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.
THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK falls into the latter category. This 1941 Columbia film was directed by the criminally underrated Frenchman Robert Florey and stars everybody’s favorite madman Peter Lorre. The movie’s a very early example of 40s film noir, as was another Lorre vehicle, 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR.
Lorre plays Janos Szabo, a newly arrived Hungarian immigrant watchmaker, 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 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 Benson and Watts 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 (an uncredited cameo by Frank Reicher, KING KONG’s Captain Englehorn) finally does see Janos, he informs him that 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, the only one who knows Janos’s whereabouts. Dinky spills the beans, and Jeff and company pay a visit to Janos and his new bride. 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 (pun intended!)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 a wider range of emotion beyond his standard pop-eyed psychopath roles. Keyes is also good as the doomed Helen, proving she could’ve been a much bigger star with better roles. FACE BEHIND THE MASK features plenty of familiar faces from the Mighty Columbia Arts Players brigade (Beddoe, George E Stone, Cy Schindell, John Tyrell, George McKay). The film’s a brisk 75 minutes of entertainment for lovers of 40s cinema in general, and Lorre in particular. The name Janos, by the way, was obviously inspired from the Roman god Janus, always depicted with two faces!
I’m glad I got to rewatch this movie and enjoy it without all that UHF snow.. I’ve got plenty more lined up in the DVR, and look forward to sharing my impressions of them with you, dear reader. So get that popcorn ready and let’s go to the show!