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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34 thoughts on “The Mask of Dimitrios

  1. You raise a lot of good points in your excellent piece here, Colin! I think we all can sympathize with revisiting a personal favorite from our youth that has lost its luster when viewed with older, more jaded eyes. Glad to know DIMITRIOS lived up to your memories of it. I have yet to see this film, but have long been curious about it, mainly for its teaming of Greenstreet and Lorre. This sounds like a rather unusual role for Lorre, as the more straightforward hero in over his head, but how pleasant that the studio cast him in the part rather than the usual stock matinee idol lead. I know where you’re coming from in your apprehension about DVD-R media, but I have to say that I’ve been quite pleased with the misc. Warners Archive product I’ve purchased so far (just got their George Sanders’ THE SAINT collection and the 2 FALCON sets – good stuff, if not remastered).

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    • Cheers Jeff. It can be one hell of a let down when you revisit a movie you’ve held dear for ages only to discover it no longer cuts it. Luckily, this one was more of a pleasant experience.

      Lorre rarely got the chance to play heroic roles, which is understandable enough but a little unfortunate too. It’s always refreshing to see performers try out different things.

      I have some MOD discs myself and can’t really complain about the transfers on any of them – it’s just not a medium I’m happy paying for. Fortunately though, there are alternative pressed releases for the majority of titles in Europe. I’ve managed to acquire all the RKO Saint and Falcon titles from France and the UK respectively for example.

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  2. I saw this some years ago and remember it being a good thriller, but that’s about all. Now I’m discovering Faye Emerson, I guess it’s time to catch up again. As you say, great to have Greenstreet and Lorre front and centre. Aren’t they in a film with Geraldine Fitzgerald?

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    • I really like the few movies where Lorre and Greenstreet got to take leading roles as they were a wonderful duo.

      The movie you’re thinking of with Geraldine Fitzgerald is Three Strangers, also directed by Negulesco incidentally. It’s not quite as good as The Mask of Dimitrios, but well worth a look too.

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  3. Terrific review Colin – like you, I saw this in my early teens and then had to wait ages for a repeat (on the European TCM channel) before I saw it again – same goes for The Beast with Five Fingers so am glad to hear you also think it still holds up. And I will definitely now get rid of my off-air copy and get the Spanish release – at last!

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    • The Beast with Five Fingers is a movie I don’t believe I’ve seen for almost as long and wouldn’t mind revisiting.
      It’s always a pleasure when the opportunity arises to ditch home made copies of much loved titles and get your mits on an official release. If only The Conspirators & Background to Danger would show up somewhere in Europe I’d have a full set of Greenstreet and Lorre titles.

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      • I am fairly sure I saw all of these in my teens on BBC2 but probably not since, but I get a nice little glow just thinking about it! Actually, you’ve just made me remember that I’ve not read Ambler’s original novel though I’ve had a copy for years – that’s ridiculous!

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        • In that case you should definitely move it up your list. I think it’s a great book and the movie is pretty faithful as far as I can remember. Actually, it would make a good entry for one of your book/movie tie-in pieces.

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            • I do hope you get round to that at some point – I’d love to read it.

              Yes Colonel Haki appears in both Journey into Fear (Orson Welles) and The Mask of Dimitrios (Kurt Katch). Welles, obviously, is much more memorable in the role but Kurt Katch is fun too, and much more benevolent.

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  4. I really enjoyed your review Colin, I haven’t seen this film but it sounds great. I’m glad it lived up to what you remembered, as it’s always disappointing when it turns out to be a stinker.

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    • Thank you Alyssa. I thoroughly enjoyed this viewing and the movie now remains safely established among my favorite 40s mysteries. If you have the opportunity to see it, it’s definitely worth an hour and a half of your time.

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  5. The Warner Archives disc is a very good transfer and I suspect the same one that’s on the Spanish DVD, Colin. Nice to read your appreciation of this wonderful film. The Mask of Dimitrios is my favorite of the several films Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet made together. The interaction of their characters is a multi-layared thing which they are clearing enjoying, and a viewer enjoys their enjoyment. I love the brooding mood, the decadent sensibility, the way mystery gradually turns into endangerment as the revelations come. Of course, it was all shot in Burbank, but you’d never know it by the stylization and potent atmosphere.

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    • Hi Richard. I don’t have the WA disc to compare but I too imagine we’re talking about the same transfer. I’ve seen a few Absolute releases that were previously available via the Archive and, having had an opportunity to compare them, they looked identical.

      All of the Lorre & Greenstreet films are entertaining in my opinion but this one, helped no doubt by the strong source material, sits easily at the top of the heap.

      I really like the way these pictures used studio sets so cleverly. Proper location shooting has its own advantages of course, but there’s a marvelous atmosphere that comes from watching these movies. I’ve heard people complain about this practice before although, for me, there’s great artistry involved in creating these set bound worlds.

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    • That’s correct – unusual to say the least.

      Personally, I’d say Background to Danger is the weakest of Lorre & Greenstreet’s films together. Somehow, with Raoul Walsh directing, you expect better things. George Raft really wasn’t the best choice for the lead and that is a major weakness. I don’t recall it as being an especially bad movie but it could have been a whole lot better too.
      Still, I wouldn’t mind picking it up at some point, just not at premium MOD prices.

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  6. I like THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS too. As for studio bound worlds, this is the way most cinema was for a long time and has a wonderful artistry all its own as you have said so well. Personally, the long period in which location shooting and studio sets coexisted within films is also fascinating to me in its own right. That’s mostly the 50s though goes back earlier for some films and later for others too.

    Peter Lorre here reminds me of something that is often true–actors are thought of a certain way and cast that way most of the time, but it doesn’t mean they cannot do other things just as well given the opportunity–if they are as good as Lorre they can readily take on a sympathetic and even heroic or romantic role and do it just as well as what we expect from them (Lorre’s brief though great role in CASABLANCA is more emblematic of the way in which he was usually, and very effectively, cast). In any event, lots of comment on Lorre and Greenstreet in the comments should not obscure that this was Zachary Scott’s film debut, that he was plainly superb as the title character and it made his career, an admirable one for any actor.

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    • On the matter of studio sets, I alluded to it originally for two reasons. Firstly, I do think it plays a large part in creating atmosphere in this and other movies of the period. And secondly, there is sometimes a tendency to criticize studio bound productions and talk up location work. I think both filming techniques have their advantages, depending particularly on the genre they are used within. Generally, I like to see westerns where the crew take the cameras outdoors, but mysteries and thrillers can equally gain as much by doing the opposite. Blake, your point about the techniques co-existing for a time highlights that in a way. And of course television kept the tradition alive when cinema seemed to have moved decisively to location only shooting.

      Typecasting – actors complain about it all the time, and yet it also ensures steady work for many. I’m sure it must be incredibly frustrating for performers to find themselves limited to the types of parts they’re offered based largely on their appearance or the kind of roles they pulled off successfully in the past. Like Lorre here, there are always some instances to be found of this not happening, and it can be a revelation. Zachary Scott was indeed excellent as Dimitrios and it did set him up but I think the part also led to his being cast mainly as untrustworthy, unscrupulous types thereafter.

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  7. Hi Colin, great read on a movie I also really enjoy, it’s one of those you love to recommend to people because so few seem to have seen it. Once I looked into the real history behind the story I liked it even more, they could hardly fit all the reality into a novel or film. Thanks

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    • Thanks Kristina. I agree there’s pleasure to be had from recommending what to many is an unknown film.
      And you’ve reminded me that I was amiss in forgetting to link to your own excellent piece on the film. Apart from providing a fine all-round analysis of the movie, you present a fascinating look at the man who was the inspiration for the character of Dimitrios.

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      • Oh well many thanks for linking, not amiss at all but kind of you to remember that! Real guy sure didn’t look like Zachary though! 🙂 Love the way that character gets built up through the movie to make an effectively creepy entrance. Best

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  8. It is interesting the way time and life alters our perspectives and tastes. How some movies stand up to the test of time and others flop. I find I have little patience anymore with ultra romance — Wuthering Heights comes to mind (why didn’t they just stop and talk about it before ruining their lives?) — but other movies are even better than I originally thought because having lived some, I get the point. Never seen this one, but will keep an eye out for it. Everything comes up eventually. Thanks.

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    • Yes. As someone said, the movies remain the same but we change. It’s sometimes an eye-opener to realize which films still work for us and which ones don’t. Thanks for chipping in here.

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  9. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, October 2013 | Past Offences

  10. Fortunately, Dimitrios plays regularly on TCM in the USA and I usually record it on video tape and watch it every night for a week or until I get my fill. I can’t praise it highly enough. I love to watch this along with “Three Strangers” as others have mentioned. Both films where every professional in front of the camera and behind the camera has an opportunity to shine.
    Lorre and Greenstreet were one of the greatest of film teams.

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  11. Just caught this for the first time last night. Part of the Peter Lorre retrospective at the BFI so it was on the big screen. Like you I’d heard good things and had been frustrated with its absence on DVD.

    I liked it a great deal. Lorre and Greenstreet are of course fabulous and the two sequences you point out are probably the strongest in the film.

    Regarding Ambler adaptations I think I may still prefer Journey into Fear…but maybe that needs a rewatch to confirm.

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    • I’m glad you saw the movie and enjoyed it, Giles. It’s almost shameful that it’s been so elusive for so long – still you know what they say about good things and those who wait.
      I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hotel Reserve, adapted from Epitaph for a Spy. I like it quite a lot, and the book too, and it really is crying out for an official DVD release.

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  12. Hard to go wrong with Warner’s product. Great cast, a fine story and solid direction make for a fine timewaster.
    Lorre fans should check out THE FIFTH WHEEL – 1956 It is Peter Lorre comic, crime slash noir. This “live” episode is from the anthology series, “Climax!”. This series ran for 166 episodes between 1954 and 58. This one stars Peter Lorre, Hume Cronyn, James Gleason, Buddy Baer, John Lupton, Bonita Granville and Donald MacBride. Review up at the usual place and I’m sure I saw it up on You-Tube a while back. I have it on disc.

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