The Fabulous Tale OF A MAN OF MYSTERY!
The Mask of Dimitrios is a wonderful picture, perhaps almost a Maltese Falcon lite, as it obviously owes much to its much more famous predecessor. Reunited in this little noir mystery are Peter Lorre, as author Cornelius Leyden and Sydney Greenstreet as the enigmatic Mr. Peters.
Leyden becomes fascinated by the career of lifelong criminal after the criminal’s body washes up on a Turkish beach. The criminal is Dimitrios Makropoulos, played (in his debut) by Zachary Scott. Thinking perhaps the story of Makropoulos would make a great storyline for his next detective thriller, Leyden spends the balance of the picture following Makropoulos’ exploits throughout Europe- unveiling a fresh intrique and scam perpetrated by the criminal at each stop.
Makropoulos is played in flashbacks reenacting these crimes by Zachary Scott, who does a good job in the enigmatic role, but the movie really belongs to the wonderful Sydney Greenstreet whose phrasing and non verbal communication on screen (with his huge bulk) steals the spotlight. Greenstreet’s amiable yet sinister portrayal of Makropoulos’ former partner Mr. Peters drives Peter Lorre’s (and our) interest to peak levels.
Peter Lorre as well is exceptional, but for some reason gets meager fourth billing on the credits, which is beyond unimaginable. His character, the author Leyden, has a bit of the sliminess of his Maltese Falcon character as well, though perhaps this was unintentional. For quite a while I thought that perhaps Leyden was in fact Makropoulos researching exactly what folks knew of him. (My thinking was wrong, for the record.)
Makropoulos is so secretive a character that few have seen him- making Leyden (who viewed the body) of special interest to most of the folks he comes across- mainly to verify that the criminal is, in fact, dead. As you’d expect there are a few twists in the later half which I won’t share with you.
The film is splendid and these two lesser actors (all the big names were busy in that pesky war) show that they can build the suspense and drama. And they can do it without special effects, explosions, plane crashes, etc. Except for a few simple gunshots, the violence is simply psychological and all the more intense for it.
With its dark motif and its ominous aura, The Mask of Dimitrios succeeds in immersing the viewer in Europe – primarily the Balkans – without leaving the Warners lot. Amazing what can be done in a studio- plus, can you imagine trying to film across Europe during the fading years of World War II?
Some would call this a good B movie, but I would characterize it more as a lesser A film- don’t let the absence of a Bogart deter you. This is a really well done and suspenseful way to spend 90 minutes or so. And strangely, not available on DVD – not even from the deep and broad Warner Archives. Perhaps soon.
Find an old VHS (gasp) copy or a TCM viewing- you shan’t be disappointed.