Blog Archive

03 November 2018

The Mask of Dimitrios: Mysterious, Glamorous European Noir

Film Noir is one of the best-known and most popular film genres. From the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties, these suspenseful, often gritty stories of dwellers in the shadows -- the shadows thoughtfully provided by black and white photography inspired by German expressionism -- provided a welcome counterpoint of cynicism to the cheery melody of popular films.

Though mainly an urban genre, Noir can be set anywhere, including on trains or boats taking the protagonist(s) from one setting to another. A whole sub-genre of Film Noir existed, most notably at Warner Brothers, from 1938 through 1955. I would call this Swanky European Noir, because it usually depends on an atmosphere of dark, multi-lingual exoticism barely comprehensible to innocent, straightforward Americans. This would include wartime spy movies, but also films from those pre-war years when everyone knew something bad was coming (and soon), and the immediate post-war years (see list at the end).

But the king of this types of film, and the most sterling example of all, is The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by the versatile Jean Negulesco, and starring Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Stephan Geray, and Victor Francen, among many others. It is an excellent adaptation of Eric Ambler's bestselling novel A Coffin for Dimitrios (a very good read, by the way).

Peter Lorre plays Cornelius Leyden -- a normal person
The screenplay follows the unusual structure of the novel, which all seen from the point of view of Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch professor who has retired from teaching after writing a bestselling mystery novel. He uses the proceeds of his success to travel around Europe. While visiting Istanbul, Turkey, he comes across the story of a notorious criminal called Dimitrios Makropolos. He becomes acquainted with a police inspector, Colonel Haki (a character who appears in other Ambler novels and is in fact played by Orson Welles in Journey Into Fear), who describes his own efforts to track down Dimitrios. The character of Dimitrios begins to fascinate Leyden; from here on, the whole story is told to him by different people he meets while pursuing his researches.

Leyden meets Haki
Noirs of any sort often feature a guide for the audience in the form of an innocent  bystander who gets caught up in the noir underworld; in European this is frequently an American contending with ancient and labrynthine European ways, like Joseph Cotton's Holley in The Third Man. It is really refreshing to see Peter Lorre playing a normal person -- well, his Mr. Leyden is more thoughtful, curious, and perceptive than average, but he is completely honest and trustworthy. The more he finds out about Dimitrios' cruelty and duplicity, the more horrified he becomes.The film wanders all over unusual corners of Europe -- not just Paris, Berlin, or London, but Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, places little known to average Americans. Or average Dutchmen like Leyden, who gamely follows the increasingly harrowing path of crime and corruption. 

The young Dimitrios
Leyden follows Dimitrios' trail to Sophia, in Bulgaria. On the way he meets Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), apparently by chance, who turns out to have an even more eager interest in Dimitrios' whereabouts. What Leyden discovers in Sophia is a tale of betrayal, exploitation, and blackmail, recounted by a notorious queen of the underworld (Faye Emerson) in her sleazy nightclub. We see her in flashback as a beautiful young woman whose life was ruined by Dimitrios.

Exotic and foreign but still sleazy
Peters directs Leyden to Mr. Grudek (Victor Francen), in Yugoslavia. This leads to a delightful scene between Lorre and Francen, portraying two men of the world, more truly sophisticated than even the most urbane of American characters in most films of this era.

Leyden and Mr. Peters "meet cute"

Grudek appears to be a gentleman of leisure who, ensconced in a historic chateau, is spending his retirement writing a religious biography. But the life he retired from was as one of Europe's top spymasters. After taking a moment to introduce Leyden to his two lovely Siamese cats, Grudek tells him another cnapter in Dimitrios' career of destruction. This is the longest and the most tragic episode, as Dimitrios cleverly and relentlessly traps an innocent government clerk (beautifully played by Steven Geray) into betraying his country.

Leyden and Grudek with Heloise and Abelard

The final incident in Paris explains Mr. Peters' interest; as it turns out, he was one of a group of people tricked by Dimitrios into taking the fall for an international criminal fraud, sending him to jail and ruining his life, while Dimitrios himself, naturally, got off scott-free.  Peters is convinced that Dimitrios is still alive. His only interest in life now is revenge. Leyden, despite some skirmishes, has become fond of Mr. Peters, and agrees to help him try to trap Dimitrios if possible. To his horror, it is, and he comes face to face with the criminal whose career he now knows so well. His reaction surprises him as much as it does Dimitrios.

The final conforntation

This movie is endlessly entertaining, a combination of exotic (but shadowy) foreign backgrounds, a subtle, well-informed script, and truly wonderful acting by Lorre, Greenstreet, and Zachary Scott as the wily and heartless Dimitrios, who prowls through civilized society like an amoral predator, with no respect, no ethics, no beliefs, and no affections or ties of any kind to weigh him down, shocking even experienced crime fighters like Col. Haki with his complete selfishness. This, of course, is eventually his downfall.

This movie takes place well before World War 2, and has no direct connection to the rise of the Nazis; but the contrast between the brutal, unfeeling, power-mad Dimitrios and the decent, cultured, ethical, and unsuspecting victims he leaves in his wake is pointed. It's a twofold warning -- first, that a psychopath like Dimitrios is an outlier to the run of humanity, and his advent couldn't really be predicted, and, second, that it could recur at any time, without warning. Like Fascism.

Here are some of my favorite Swanky European Noirs:

Escape, a great film starring Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, and Conrad Veidt,
Rage In Heaven, with Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, and Robert Montgomery,
A Woman's Face, with Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, and the invaluable Conrad Veidt,
One Night in Lisbon, with Fred MacMurray and Madeline Carroll,
Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant,
Journey Into Fear, with Joseph Cotton and Dolores Del Rio,
Background to Danger, with George Raft and Brenda Marshall,Lifeboat, with Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak,
The Seventh Cross, with Spencer Tracy and Hume Cronyn,
The Conspirators, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid
In Our Time, Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid
Ministry of Fear, with Ray Milland
Confidential Agent, Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall
Deception, with Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid
Three Strangers, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Joan Lorring
Lured, with Lucille Ball and George Sanders
Arch of Triumph, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Ingrid Bergman
Berlin Express, Merle Oberon, Robert Ryan
A  Foreign Affair, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur
Sealed Verdict, Ray Milland
The Third Man, with Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Deported, Jeff Chandler and Marta Toren