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  Face Behind the Mask, The Immigration Trepidation
Year: 1941
Director: Robert Florey
Stars: Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe, George E. Stone, John Tyrrell, Cy Shindell, Stanley Brown, James Seay, Warren Ashe, Charles C. Wilson, George McKay, Frank Reicher
Genre: Horror, Drama, Thriller, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is a Hungarian immigrant fleeing Europe and leaving behind the woman he loves in the hope they may reunite some time in the future. In spite of this heartache, he is determined to stay positive about his new home of the United States of America, and has learned English especially, so when the ship he is on finally docks he practically skips onto the streets of New York in search of somewhere to stay. He asks a passerby for directions, but the man rather cruelly sends him in the direction of the most expensive place around, though Janos never gets there as he becomes convinced he has been robbed. He hasn't, but does meet a kindly policeman (Don Beddoe) in the process...

From the opening ten minutes or so of this brief B-movie you could be thinking you were in for a drama about the immigrant experience in America at a time when the subject was most pressing since there was a war raging in Europe at the time: it was a matter close to the heart of many of those emigrants to Hollywood, for a start, as Peter Lorre was one himself. He too hailed from Hungary as was, just like Janos does, and this might have informed a reading of the character who must be one of the sweetest in the actor's canon, which was against the villainous and/or creepy roles he was more accustomed to playing. However, just like a creation whose centre cannot hold, the film ultimately punishes Janos for thinking he could have been cheery.

It's this melancholy bitterness that makes The Face Behind the Mask so compelling, even to this day as its initial scenes may come across as hokey, yet director Robert Florey was only doing to so contrast with the abyss of despair that the protagonist was about to endure. Though there was no particular hero figure to set things right here, this resembled the sort of pulp yarn that could have informed an old Batman comic, with Janos a prototype Two-Face or Black Mask joined in one personality; in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy both of those villains were considered for inclusion, the former made it and the latter did not. You could imagine Nolan having caught this on late night television at some point in the past and it making an impression.

That was purely because although Janos becomes a gang leader, the essential tragedy of his situation weighed heavily on the drama, with fate crushing him every time he attempted to act decently. What happens is that he is caught in a fire at the hotel the cop recommended to him, which makes the lawman feel responsibility for the now-disfigured unfortunate, but more importantly forces Janos into a life of crime when nobody will hire him because his scarred face sickens them. Any potential employer takes one look and makes excuses: desperate for money, he happens to accidentally frighten one man into dropping his wallet and a small-time opportunist picks it up, sharing the meagre contents with him. This is Dinky (George E. Stone), and he has contacts in the underworld that with Janos's skill with his (intact) hands sends him on a career of lawbreaking.

To great success, and for a while the anti-hero's cynicism at how this is the only method of doing well in a corruption of the American Dream he had so much faith in seems to render him irredeemable, the lost love back in Hungary dismissed with a letter that takes a lot out of Janos to have to write. Then again, love will find a way as he meets blind lady Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who not being able to see the haunting mask he now sports thanks to now being able to afford at least that if not the plastic surgery he needs, falls in love with him and vice versa. Yet the film is so intent on forcing its main character towards callous doom (plenty is packed into just over an hour) that it goes to lengths you wouldn't get in many crime dramas even to this day, which is why this is also loosely classed as horror, not least because of the finale which is memorably macabre in its acts of vengeance. Lorre tended to dismiss his B-movies, this included, but he was surprisingly affecting in a film that showcased his storming talent in an uneasy, bleak fashion.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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