Robert Florey, 1941
Starring: Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe
A Hungarian immigrant, Janos Szabo, comes to New York with a hopeful heart, though he nearly loses his money, and a friendly detective helps him find lodgings and work in a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, during his first night there, he is badly burned when the hotel catches fire. He survives, but his face is horribly disfigured and Janos can’t find work anywhere, despite his many skills and experience as a watchmaker. No one will talk to him or even look at him without revulsion and horror. He is about to kill himself by jumping into the river when he meets Dinky, a kind thief who takes Janos under his wing. Dinky soon falls ill and to care for him, Janos embraces a life of crime.
Soon he is successful enough that he takes over the gang and can afford to buy a latex mask that resembles his own face. He also meets a beautiful blind woman, Helen, and falls in love. Janos tries to leave the gang and they fear it is because he has become a police informant. In response, they try to kill Janos, but accidentally kill Helen. He disguises himself and flies the gang out into the desert, where they will all die slowly of starvation in order for Janos to get his revenge.
Though there are elements of horror, particularly towards the conclusion, this is really more of a crime film, almost a proto-noir. Like later noir cinema, this is essentially about outsiders and the failure of the American dream with an ending that rejects happiness or redemption for any of the characters. Lorre was also in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), another early noir considered by some to be the first in the genre. He and director Robert Florey also worked together on The Beast with Five Fingers, though Florey is best known for the Bela Lugosi vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue. This is one of his strongest films and it benefits from the German expressionist-like cinematography from Franz Planer. Planer, like Lorre, Murnau, Freund, and a number of other horror filmmakers and actors, recently emigrated from Germany and sought work in Hollywood.
The script by Paul Jarrico (Tom, Dick and Harry and many more until he was blacklisted by McCarthy), Arthur Levinson, and Allen Vincent was adapted from a play, Interim, by Thomas Edward O’Connell. The film deals with some issues not often tackled by horror of the period: crime, poverty, justice, and other wartime era social issues. While these bear far more in common with crime drama, Janos’s character is almost a classic horror villain. Almost like Frankenstein’s Monster he is deformed, yet innocent, desperate for human interaction or, at the least, a kind word.
Everyone is so unkind to him that it is no wonder he is forced to turn to a life of crime for simple survival. There are moments that seem overly melodramatic, but overall Janos’s character is incredibly sympathetic, if not outright tragic. Lorre’s Janos is an outsider in every sense of the word. He is a foreigner, then later facially disabled, then a criminal, and then an outsider in his own gang because he has fallen in love and wants to reform. Lorre is particularly skilled at playing these characters, which he also does in M, Mad Love, The Beast with Five Fingers, and many more. Lorre gives a great performance here and it is somewhat incredible that this film is mostly ignored and forgotten.
His costars, George E. Stone (Some Like It Hot) as Dinky and the lovely Evelyn Keyes (The Seven Year Itch) as Helen, are also quite likable and don’t exaggerate their performances like some of the other side actors. It is also possible that we like them simply because they are the only people in the entire film who are kind to Janos, even though he starts out as innocent and sweet.
The effects are simply, but creepy, with Lorre’s mask little more than some white make up and tape in the corners of his face. We barely see his burned, deformed face and for the first half of the film, he angles his face off camera with one exception: the scene where he glimpses his mutilated face in a mirror, shrieks with horror, and has a meltdown in the hospital.
The Face Behind the Mask is primarily recommended for anyone who loves noir, non-supernatural early horror, or Peter Lorre. The film is available on YouTube, but, as far as I can tell, sadly still lacks an official DVD release.