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Category Archives: Peter Lorre

The Mask of Dimitrios

To me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired the shot – but who paid for the bullet.

The passage of time can have a nasty tendency to cloud the memory, to cast a kind of nostalgic haze over things and distort reality. On occasion I’ve found this to be the case with films, where fondly remembered movies, those which have earned themselves a special place in the heart over the years, fail to live up to their promise. It’s quite a crushing disappointment to discover that a film we thought was wonderful long ago falls far short of the stellar image we’ve built up in our imagination. Happily though, that’s not always the case, and sometimes it just happens that the film we saw all those years ago really is the little gem we’ve been yearning to see again ever since. The Mask of Dimitrios  (1944) is one such movie; I caught it once on a late night TV broadcast at some point during my teenage years and it made a big impression on me. However, it never seemed to show up again no matter how carefully I scoured the TV listing pages in the papers. It also remained stubbornly absent from DVD release schedules to the point I began to despair of ever seeing it again. In the interim I’d read the Eric Ambler novel from which it had been adapted, and that actually just served to increase my frustration. Anyway, when I finally learned of its DVD release this year I experienced a rush of excitement tinged with a hint of trepidation. Fortunately, the latter feeling turned out to be misplaced as I realized my memory hadn’t been cheating me. Ah, the ups and downs of being a movie fan!

It’s 1938 and the uncertainty and upheaval of the inter-war years will soon be swept aside by the approaching conflict. In Istanbul a group of children run happily along the shores of the Bosphorus. They halt abruptly, shocked by the gruesome sight before them. The body of a murdered man has washed up and now lies carelessly on the sand. The clothing and papers identify the remains as belonging to one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a Greek national and a man not unfamiliar to the authorities. Later that evening, at a party, the Turkish security officer in charge of the investigation falls into conversation with Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a mystery writer vacationing in the Levant. The tale of the shady character now lying on a mortuary slab intrigues Leyden and piques his writer’s interest. Armed with only a handful of dates and locations, Leyden takes it upon himself to satisfy his curiosity and make a stab at tracing the movements of this notorious figure. Leyden therefore sets out on a journey that will take him first to Athens, then on to Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and finally Paris. Along the way, via a series of flashbacks narrated by an assortment of middle European types, he begins to piece together a picture of the mysterious and ruthless Dimitrios (Zachary Scott). At every turn though, Leyden’s path seems to cross that of Mr Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a man whose interest in  Dimitrios surpasses that of the diminutive writer. It soon becomes apparent that the threat posed by men such as Dimitrios doesn’t end with death, and that his malignant influence may even extend beyond the grave.

The Mask of Dimitrios is one of those pictures that sails awfully close to the boundaries of film noir; the fates of Dimitrios’ victims certainly moves it in that direction as does the shadowy photography and multiple flashbacks employed. However, despite the presence of these persuasive factors, it’s the mystery/espionage elements that dominate for the most part. The story comes from Eric Ambler’s finest novel (high praise indeed as the man rarely wrote anything weak) and I reckon the film stands as the best adaptation of his work to date. Generally, Ambler’s stories dealt with men who found themselves drawn unwittingly into the murky world of spying and underground politics. By having the bulk of the action play out in the Balkans, that hotbed of intrigue and shifting loyalties, The Mask of Dimitrios captures the mood of betrayal for profit beautifully. Both Ambler’s writing and Jean Negulesco’s atmospheric direction leave the viewer in no doubt that we’re being taken on a tour of a world of secrets, memories and confidences cherished for emotional and material value. For me there are two standout sequences in the movie. The first is the framing story in a cheap night club in Sofia. Faye Emerson is wonderfully weary and faded as she recounts her past with Dimitrios: the air is thick with a kind of smoky decadence, Emerson’s near lifeless eyes and drawn expression speak volumes, and the band plays Perfidia in the background. The other noteworthy episode is an extended flashback to an elaborate sting in Belgrade, where a minor government official has his own weakness manipulated in order to suck him into committing treason. The combination of Dimitrios’ cold slickness and Steven Geray’s portrayal of the poor dupe whose fragile ego, thwarted ambition and desperate desire to rise in his wife’s estimation makes it quite affecting.

Of the half-dozen or so movies that Greenstreet and Lorre made together in the 40s, The Mask of Dimitrios was the one that gave them the greatest opportunity to shine. Something like The Maltese Falcon handed them fascinating roles, but they were still only there to provide support for Bogart and Astor. This film, on the other hand, places the two men front and center and it’s their partnership as much as anything that carries the whole thing. As Peters, Greenstreet has the more ambiguous part, and gets to indulge in his patented trick of switching from jovial bonhomie to dark menace in the blink of an eye. Lorre acts as the viewer’s guide, half leading and half stumbling his way through the twisting tale. Zachary Scott is of course the true villain of the piece, and the movie offered him one of his best parts. He always had an oily charm that could be used to strong effect when necessary, but this time that quality remains largely buried beneath a cold, calculating facade. As the story progresses the full extent of Dimitrios’ foul character is gradually revealed, and Scott manages to convey very successfully just how dangerous this man truly is.

As I said at the beginning of this short piece, The Mask of Dimitrios was a difficult film to see for a long time. Earlier this year though, it appeared on DVD via the Warner Archives. At the time I felt ambivalent about this fact; I wanted to get my hands on the film but I’ve never managed to completely overcome my aversion to buying DVD-R products. When I learned over the summer that Absolute in Spain were putting out their own pressed disc version of the movie, I decided that was the one I’d go for. Absolute can generally be relied on to produce solid, attractive releases, and this is no exception. The image doesn’t display any noticeable damage and has nice contrast levels to show off the noirish photography. As usual with this company, subtitles are no issue and can be deselected from the setup menu. Extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a booklet (in Spanish naturally) containing notes on the film and a good selection of stills. OK, so I had been a little fearful that the film wouldn’t prove as entertaining as I hoped, but it ended up being every bit as satisfying as I recalled. Personally, I think it’s a terrific example of the magic that studio bound B thrillers could conjure up when the right cast and crew were handed promising material. Do yourselves a favor folks and check this one out – it comes highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2013 in 1940s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

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The Verdict

Some films just seem to work for me, to click if you like. They need not necessarily be movies of any extraordinary depth or have any abiding influence. The Verdict (1946) is one of these; it’s a small movie, a B picture really, but through a happy combination of elements it just checks most of the boxes for me. Firstly, there’s the setting: Victorian London as only Hollywood of the 1940s could depict it. Then there’s the fact that the plot revolves around a classic impossible crime, a locked room puzzle. And finally, a star pairing who worked so well and so memorably in tandem that they almost created a little sub-genre of their own. Mixing all these ingredients together results in a delightful little film that has no pretensions of greatness, that seeks only to entertain, and achieves that, not inconsiderable, goal admirably.

The opening is a first class piece of moody and atmospheric scene setting. The caption informs us that we’re in London in 1890, a dark and brooding place, as the camera tracks in to focus on Newgate prison, the last stop for many a condemned man. With the fog clinging to the gas street lamps and a bell solemnly tolling the hour of execution, the story’s protagonist looms into view. Superintendent Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) is, quite literally, the big man in Scotland Yard. His lumbering bulk and sombre features speak of a man deeply contemplating his actions and his role in the world. Grodman’s latest investigation has drawn to a close and a convicted murderer is on his way to the gallows. Yet Grodman takes no pleasure in this, reflecting that success for a man in his position leaves only a bitter taste. In a sense, Grodman is condemned too, and we’re soon made aware of this paradox as the tale unfolds. Fate, circumstance and the pettiness of a rival have conspired to bring bout a dreadful miscarriage of justice. Grodman has sent an innocent man to the gallows. His professional disgrace is only one aspect of the matter though; a fine little montage succinctly sums up the guilt and paranoia Grodman suffers. Now settled into retirement, Grodman finds himself drawn back into his old life when a curious murder takes place in the boarding house opposite his own quarters. A reprehensible young man (Morton Lowry) had been found stabbed in his room under inexplicable circumstances: the door is locked from the inside and all the windows are sealed up. Grodman’s rival and successor at the Yard, Buckley (George Coulouris), is stumped and reluctantly calls on him for advice. Aside from the baffling mechanics of how the crime was committed, there are a clutch of fascinating suspects: Peter Lorre as an illustrator with a macabre sense of humour, Paul Cavanagh as a stiff-necked politician, June Lorring as Music Hall girl, and Rosalind Ivan’s hysterical housekeeper. Additionally, the possible motives for the murder form a complex web that encompasses jealousy, passion and blackmail. While Grodman strides in his stately manner through this labyrinth of suspicion, it emerges that history is in danger of repeating itself, with the possibility of another innocent victim being ground up by the wheels of blind justice.

The Verdict is adapted from The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill, one of the classic texts on the problem of the locked room – my thanks to Sergio of Tipping My Fedora for pointing out to me that this is available free as an e-book here & as an audiobook here. This particular form of impossible crime has been a staple of detective fiction for a long time, although its heyday was around the middle of the 20th century. At its best, the locked room problem depends more on the subtle art of misdirection than mechanical hoaxing. As such, this form of the detective story doesn’t always translate well to the screen and is generally far more effective in print. Still, I think Zangwill’s contribution to the canon does hit the mark and should succeed in confounding those not well-versed in this school of trickery. John Dickson Carr, the undisputed master of the locked room, also details the murder method used here in chapter 17 of The Three Coffins – the wonderful lecture on all things impossible delivered by Dr Fell – in case anyone wants spoilers without reading the Zangwill book.

The Verdict was Don Siegel’s first full length movie as director, although he had had extensive experience working in montage and the second unit in the years leading up to it. As a debut feature, it’s an impressive piece of work and demonstrates this was a talented individual with a future. While the film doesn’t bear much relation to what we might think of as a typical Siegel production, it does show that he already had a flair for visuals and pacing. The story is told economically, without unnecessary or tedious exposition, and maintains a consistent rhythm. With cameraman Ernest Haller making the most of the shadowy setups, Siegel uses a variety of interesting angles, dissolves and montage to keep things moving and strike the right tone. Aside from the excellent opening sequence, there’s a fine little section involving a late night exhumation that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror feature. The whole movie is a studio bound affair but, like the best B efforts, it turns this limitation to its advantage. The foggy London streets and mews where the action takes place may be no more than a Hollywood confection yet they have enormous charm, and the controlled environment leaves Siegel and Haller free to extract the maximum level of menace.

Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet established a great on-screen partnership in the 1940s at Warner Brothers, earning themselves the nickname “The Laurel and Hardy of Crime”  – although that term seems to have been developed in retrospect. I remain of the opinion that The Mask of Dimitrios represents their best work together but The Verdict, their final collaboration, isn’t that far behind. Both these men had the knack of injecting a vein of comedy into their playing, of adding a human face to the menacing characters they so often portrayed. In this film, it’s Lorre who gets to indulge in a bit of sly black humour as the philandering cartoonist with a penchant for the gruesome. In contrast, Greenstreet cuts a much more tragic figure, his heavy features reflecting the regret and despair of his character. While Greenstreet’s huge physical presence, frequently emphasized by low angle shooting, dominates every frame he appears in, it’s the scenes he shares with Lorre that tend to be the most memorable. These two brought out the best in one another and seemed very comfortable working together. The main support came from George Coulouris, another actor who specialized in telling character roles, and he has just the right touch of venality as Buckley. In some ways he can be seen as the true villain of the piece, the blustering career cop whose inaction sets the whole affair in motion. Joan Lorring does fine as the blowsy entertainer who may know too much for her own good and ends up as one of Buckley’s chief suspects. Paul Cavanagh, who appeared in three Universal Sherlock Holmes films, has the ideal kind of patrician bearing for the part of the honour bound politician carrying around a guilty secret. Rosalind Ivan is essentially a caricature, a noisy, brittle busybody consumed by unfulfilled passion. The minor parts are filled by Morton Lowry as the slimy cad who becomes the murder victim and Arthur Shields playing yet another of his intense, tight-lipped clergymen.

The Verdict was made available on DVD in the US a while back through the Warner Archive. Additionally, the film has just recently been given a release on pressed disc by Sinister Films in Italy and that’s the edition I own. The transfer is pretty good, although there are plenty of minor speckles and blemishes on show. Some scenes are sharper than others but there’s no serious inconsistency or distraction either. The only extra on the disc is labeled as the theatrical trailer, but it’s actually the opening few minutes of the feature. The film is presented with three audio options: the original soundtrack and no subtitles, an Italian dub, or the original track with Italian subs. The movie is an excellent piece of entertainment, featuring fine central performances, atmospheric direction and an engrossing mystery story. It’s highly recommended for fans of Lorre and Greenstreet or those who like noirish thrillers. The fact that it features a classic locked room problem is an added bonus in my eyes, although those viewers especially familiar with that detective story variant shouldn’t have too much difficulty figuring out the method used.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2012 in 1940s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

Black Angel

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Time for another neglected and half-forgotten gem, one of those movies that seem to slip beneath the radar of even the most ardent movie buffs. Black Angel (1946) is a great little film noir that doesn’t get a lot of attention but really delivers the kind of perversely satisfying payoff that the genre is noted for. There are plenty of familiar noir names in the cast, but none of them are or were exactly “stars” and the director was a man who spent his time on B programmers, so that may go some way towards explaining the relative obscurity of the film.

The opening is very self-consciously stylised, showing a lone figure on the sidewalk before panning up an artificial looking building exterior and in through the window to establish an overhead shot of a woman in her bedroom. The woman, Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), is a singer and, as we soon learn, a blackmailer. While she prowls her apartment waiting for a caller to arrive, the man on the street below is revealed to be songwriter and pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), the estranged husband who still carries a torch and hopes to see her since it’s their anniversary. Although the lovesick Blair gets stiff armed by the concierge, on his wife’s orders, the audience gets to witness two different men entering the building to see Miss Marlowe. One is night club owner Marko (Peter Lorre), and the other is a mark called Kirk Bennett (John Phillips). It’s the latter who discovers the strangled body of Marlowe and, despite protestations of innocence, is arrested, tried and sentenced to the gas chamber for her murder. As viewers, we know that Bennett is innocent – we can’t be positive who the murderer was but suspicion casts a very long shadow over Marko. The rest of the movie is essentially a race to try and nail the true culprit before the wrong man is executed. Blair and Bennett’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), form an alliance to track down the clues the police have either missed or ignored in the course of the initial investigation. This curiously matched duo naturally focus their attention on the sinister Marko but, as the old saying goes, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and the outcome is far from certain.

Falling off the wagon - Dan Duryea in Black Angel

Director Roy William Neill is hardly a household name, and he’s probably best known for helming some of the better entries in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series for Universal. In those movies he showed a real talent for conveying atmosphere and suspense on a budget. He brought that same sense of dark foreboding to Black Angel, which unfortunately proved to be his last picture, and delivered a pacy and stylish thriller. The script derives from a Cornell Woolrich story and has that twisted, nightmarish quality that characterised his work. In a rare opportunity to take on the lead role, Dan Duryea excels as the down and out loser who looks like he’s been given a second chance in life and grasps it, only to see his dreams slide away. Duryea was always a first rate villain but here he shows he had more range when necessary, and he creates a character in Martin Blair who’s actually quite touching and affecting. June Vincent, as the loyal wife, is the principal female lead but it’s such a stock role, and one devoid of anything in the way of complexity, that she fails to make much of an impression. The same can’t be said of Constance Dowling though – despite having her character killed off right at the beginning, the spectre of this striking looking woman haunts the rest of the film. Peter Lorre isn’t asked to do anything spectacular as Marko except play his standard variation on the slimy underworld type. Still, he had a nice line in menace that few could rival and he’s quite effective as the chief suspect. The supporting cast is rounded out by veteran Wallace Ford, as Blair’s friend, and a very restrained Broderick Crawford as the dubious detective.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Black Angel presents the film quite well. The transfer’s not exactly pristine but there’s no major problems either and it’s nice and sharp. The only extra on the disc is a trailer for the movie. More than one film noir has been let down by a weak or contrived ending, but this picture finishes up with a real kick in the guts that ensures none of the power is diminished. Don’t let the lesser known credentials put you off, this is a good one.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1940s, Dan Duryea, Film Noir, Peter Lorre

 

Crime and Punishment

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Dostoyevsky’s story has been filmed a number of times, but I have to confess I was not familiar with any of the versions until I viewed this 1935 film. It’s almost impossible to think of Josef von Sternberg without also thinking of Marlene Dietrich, so closely connected were their 30s careers in Hollywood. Crime and Punishment was only the second American picture von Sternberg made without his leading lady, and his best period was already behind him. This was a very low budget affair, made for Columbia, yet he still managed to turn out a film that remains visually interesting. Of course it didn’t hurt to have two up and coming talents involved, namely star Peter Lorre and cinematographer Lucien Ballard.

Basically, what we have is a tale of desperation. Raskolnikov (Lorre) is a brilliant young student of criminology, a man of great potential. Before long, however, we can see that this potential is not to be fulfilled. Both Raskolnikov and his family have fallen on hard times and he finds himself facing the threat of eviction. But Raskolnikov is a man of great pride, considering himself morally and intellectually superior to others. This pride, bordering on pomposity, is tested to the limit when he receives a visit from his mother and sister. The very real prospect of his sister allowing herself to be forced into a clearly unsuitable marriage purely out of financial necessity spurs him to act. A visit to a parasitic pawnbroker results in murder for profit, yet this great intellectual finds himself not much better off. Panicked into flight with only a fraction of the loot, his self-doubt and guilt quickly assail him. Having acted rashly due to desperation, he soon finds that a new variety of desperation awaits him. Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) is the ever-smiling, unctuous figure that appears on the scene, apparently grateful for any assistance the brilliant young student of crime can offer. The truth is the policeman is never really taken in, and it’s only a question of whether he can wheedle a confession out of Raskolnikov or whether the young man’s mounting guilt and paranoia will do the job for him.

Peter Lorre ponders his fate.

Peter Lorre was in his pomp when this film was made, riding high on a wave of critical success following Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much. He had the kind of face that was ideal for expressing fear, despair, self-loathing, anger and swaggering confidence, and all in quick succession. You can almost taste the terror as he shrinks back into the shadows when he’s on the point of being discovered at the scene of the crime, his round features bathed in cold sweat. Conversely, there’s real arrogance to the way he later struts into Porfiry’s office, casually putting his feet on the furniture, while he taunts the policeman. Edward Arnold was the perfect foil here (Sydney Greenstreet would fulfill a similar function a few years later) for Lorre’s emotional grandstanding. His ebullient Porfiry is like a great, fat spider spinning a web around, and toying with Lorre’s bug-eyed and hopelessly trapped fly. The scenes between these two, as they indulge in an intellectual duel, are the best parts of the film. The budget was obviously tight as the whole movie is studio bound and the cast is minimal, but von Sternberg never lets it look cheap. There are plenty of expressionistic shadows and the limited sets are all well photographed by a very young Lucien Ballard.

Crime and Punishment is a pretty rare film, but it has been given a DVD release in R2 in continental Europe. I picked it up purely on a whim when I noticed it on the shelf for a low price, and I’m very happy I did. Sony have provided a spiffy looking transfer that has clearly been cleaned up and really does justice to a film that’s almost 75 years old. There are a plethora of subtitles and dubs available but no other extras. There were rumours of a Peter Lorre box in R1 from Sony, and judging from the handsome look of this title I’d expect it to turn up there sooner rather than later. I don’t think Crime and Punishment is one of the lost greats, but with the high class talent involved both in front of and behind the camera it’s a movie I’m very happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1930s, Josef von Sternberg, Peter Lorre

 
 
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