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FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE(director: Robert Florey; screenwriters: Allen Vincent/Paul Jarrico/story by Arthur Levinson/based on a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell; cinematographer: Franz Planer; editor: Charles Nelson; music: Sidney Cutner; cast: Peter Lorre (Janos ‘Johnny’ Szabo), Evelyn Keyes (Helen Williams), Don Beddoe (Lt. James ‘Jim’ O’Hara), George E. Stone (Dinky), James Seay (Jeff Jeffries), Al Seymour (Benson), George McKay (Finnegan), John Tyrrell (Watts); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Irving Briskin/Wallace MacDonald; Columbia; 1941)
“The film is a horror story in that it offers a vision of the American Dream turning ugly and wrong.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Peter Lorre is superb as the skilled craftsman Hungarian immigrant newly arrived in America, Janos Szabo, in this first-rate and rather classy low-budget B-film horror/gangster tale that back in the 1960s had a cult following among film buffs. It’s directed with flair by the prolific Parisian born Robert Florey (“The Cocoanuts”/”Murders in the Rue Morgue”/”The Beast With Five Fingers”) and adapted from the story by Arthur Levinson that’s based on a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell. The adequate screenplay (the dialogue is not so hot) is by Allen Vincent and Paul Jarrico. Florey shot it in only 12 days, and was saddled with working with the alcoholic Lorre who would drink Pernod for a long breakfast and by the afternoon was too drunk to act.

The plotline has Janos’ ocean liner approaching the Statue of Liberty and he is bubbling over with enthusiasm for his new country, hoping to land work as a watchmaker and raise enough bread to bring over his fiancée. In the street, while asking for directions for a boarding house, he befriends Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) who directs him to a fleabag hotel run by his acquaintance Finnegan. The first night that Janos sleeps there, the hotel burns down and he’s facially disfigured with third degree burns. Looking like a monster, he can’t get work and no one talks to him because he looks so repulsive. Contemplating suicide on the waterfront, he meets petty thief Dinky (George E. Stone) who talks him out of it and as the first person to act friendly since the accident the two become pals. Dinky introduces Janos to his gangster pals and Janos gets talked into using his mechanical skills to break into bank vaults and the like, and soon is so gifted a thief he becomes the mastermind of the gang. He reasons if he gets enough dough he can have the plastic surgeon give him a new face. Instead he has to settle for an expensive expressionless rubber-like mask, as the plastic surgeon tells him he lost too much muscle tissue and it would take grafts every six months for 15 years to do the complete facial job (Lorre simulated a mask by coating his face with heavy white makeup and drawing back his skin toward the hairline with gauze strips glued to his cheeks). Just when Janos is giving up all hope in living, he bumps into a bubbly sweet blind girl, Helen (Evelyn Keyes), and becomes romantically involved with her, and will eventually quit the gang and live with the optimistic gal in the country. But the vicious gang leader, Jeff Jeffries (James Seay), pulls a diamond heist without Janos and in the process brings about unwanted publicity when they also murder someone during the robbery. At the same time, Jeff finds a letter with money in it from a guilt-ridden Lt. O’Hara in Janos’ pocket and erroneously believe the masked man is quitting the gang with the purpose of selling them out to the police. This causes the gang, except for the always loyal Dinky, to turn against Janos; but their plot for revenge backfires, as they plant a bomb in Janos’ car and accidentally kill Helen instead. Then Janos plans his revenge on the gang as they attempt to escape to Mexico by plane and it turns into a disaster for all, as Janos surprises them as the pilot and they all meet their maker (ala Greed) in the remote Arizona desert where Janos landed the plane without fuel.

The film is a horror story in that it offers a vision of the American Dream turning ugly and wrong. It proved to be a big box-office hit, and a film that deserves more attention as it’s still under the radar of most discerning viewers.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”