Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Faye Emerson, and Zachary Scott in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)


(director: Jean Negulesco; screenwriters: Frank Gruber/from Eric Ambler’s novel “A Coffin for Dimitrios”; cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; editor: Frederick Richards; cast: Sydney Greenstreet (Mr. Peters), Peter Lorre (Cornelius Latimer Leyden), Zachary Scott (Dimitrios Makropoulos), Faye Emerson (Irana Preveza),Victor Francen (Wladislaw Grodek), Steven Geray ( Bulic), Kurt Katch(Col. Haki), Marjorie Hoshelle (Anna Bulic), George Tobias (Fedor Muishkin), Eduardo Ciannelli (Marukakis), Florence Bates (Madame Chavez), David Hoffman (Konrad), Monte Blue (Abdul); Runtime: 95; Warner Brothers; 1944)


“Warner Bros. could crank out smashing suspense films like this one on a regular basis during the 1940s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warner Bros. could crank out smashing suspense films like this one on a regular basis during the 1940s. With the war on and many of the leading men in the service, there was a place for character actors such as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in starring roles. There would be no need to have romantic women play opposite them.

The handsome Zachary Scott made his starring debut in this film. The attractive Faye Emerson had recently married President Roosevelt’s son and therefore received top-billing, even though she had a minor part.

The film was faithfully adapted from the novel of British author Eric Ambler, and had more of a European feel to it than the ordinary American noir. Because of the dark lighting and the shadowy photography of renown film cinematographer Arthur Edeson–he also did “The Maltese Falcon”–the film retained its noir credentials despite lacking the usual noir cynicism.

The film opens in 1938 and a voiceover tells of how evil is Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott). The next shot is of a Turkish beach and the discovery of Dimitrios’ bloated body, with stab wounds, found as it is washed ashore.

Visiting Istanbul and attending a party, is a meek mystery writer from Holland, Cornelius Latimer Leyden (Peter Lorre). The head of the secret police, Colonel Haki (Katch), a fan of the writer, greets him at the party and tells him about the body that just washed ashore and a little something of Dimitrios. He was known internationally as a murderer, pimp, womanizer, smuggler, blackmailer, double-crosser, political assassin, spy, and thief (hey, it sounds like the resume for your typical middle-east tyrant!). He was a treacherous man, a man without a heart, a soul, or a conscience (sounds like the typical American president or western leader!). This intrigues the author, who accompanies the colonel to the police station before the body is disposed. Leyden is interested enough in Dimitrios, that he decides to use him as a subject for his next book. All he has to do is track down his life story and find out who he was and why he did those horrible things. The colonel provides the writer with his police dossier and all the places he was known to travel to, and where he committed his most serious crimes. He mentions that the police were after him for 20 years, but were never able to arrest him or even get a photograph.

Leyden decides to go to Smyrna first, which in 1922 was a place under martial law. The film uses flashback to record this part. Dimitrios is first seen, when he is in desperate need of money to leave the country. But he finds a perfect pigeon to rob, Konrad (Hoffman), a crooked businessman. He brings a partner, Abdul (Blue), along to the victim’s apartment, but instead of just robbing him as planned he knifes the fence to death and steals all his money. Abdul is caught by the police and hung, while Dimitrios escapes to Athens.

Leyden prepares himself to travel through Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva, and finally to Paris, in order to trace the sinister criminal’s path.

On board a train to Sophia a portly, large-framed man, with a unique chuckle, Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), will share a train compartment with him. Peters is reading a book entitled “Pearls of Everyday Wisdom,” while Leyden goes to sleep. He will mention to Leyden the next morning, “There is not enough kindness in the world,” and he then will recommend a hotel on his stop in Sophia.

Peters will enter and search the hotel room when Leyden is out. When Leyden returns, he is confronted by Peters pointing a gun at him and questioning him about what he knows about Dimitrios. Peters is interested that Leyden saw the dead body and that he had found it with no money on him and that he was wearing shabby clothes with the name Dimitrios sewn inside the coat. He proposes that they form an alliance and he will help Leyden gets more information on Dimitrios from someone who knew him quite well — Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen). He now resides in Geneva. Peters warns you will only get into trouble by going to Belgrade as planned, that Grodek was a former master spy and knows what you want to know better than anyone else. Peters also offers Leyden half a million French francs as his share of the loot, which will result from a scheme he has cooked up to get money for the information the two of them possess.

While Leyden was in Sophia, Peters introduces Leyden to the attractive Irana Preveza (Faye) in the smoky cabaret she works in and she reluctantly tells her hard-luck story of meeting Dimitrios in 1923 and falling in love with him, despite knowing how despicable he was. After being broke and about to be turned over to the police by his landlord Dimitrios sneaks into her apartment and she offers him a meal and a little money. The next day he returns with a large amount of money and pays her back with considerable interest, having blackmailed her rich married lover. Dimitrios will eventually have to leave the country when he attempts to assassinate the head of Bulgaria, borrowing a huge sum of money from Irena after she lies to the police to provide him with an alibi. She will never see him again or be paid back.

In Geneva, armed with the letter of introduction Peters gave him Leyden finds out from Grodek how Dimitrios cruelly worked an espionage racket in Belgrade by talking a mousy clerk (Geray) in the war office, into stealing documents of a minefield operation. He did it by trickily getting the clerk into gambling debts and forcing him to betray his country. The clerk ended up shooting himself, not able to live with his cowardly deed of betrayal to his country during wartime. As for Grodek who was partners with Dimitrios in this endeavor, the stalworth Dimitrios double-crossed him and robbed the minefield plans and then sold it to a higher bidder.

Leyden tells the amiable Peters, that he is not interested in the blackmail money but will meet him in his Paris apartment in order to get the full story. At last, in Paris, Peters tells Leyden that Dimitrios faked his death, that it is a man called Konstantin Gollos who was found on the beach. He’s a member of their smuggling ring, and that Dimitrios is alive in Paris.

When they meet the suave and curt Dimitrios in his Paris apartment, he cuts a ruthlessly dashing figure. Peters tells Dimitrios they want a million francs in return for their silence in the matter of his faked death.

When Peters gets the money he is gleeful for the moment–the enlarged bills of money look unusually large onscreen, looking more like Monopoly game money than real. But, surprisingly, Dimitrios appears in the doorway of their room and shoots Peters. He then goes to shoot Leyden, but the little man manages to knock the gun out of his hand and Peters gets the gun and points it at the cowering Dimitrios, who is begging for his life. When Leyden goes to get the police, offscreen we hear the shots fired by Peters and soon the police come to arrest him. It is implied, by the glow on his face, that he’s more glad that he killed Dimitrios (he double-crossed him once too often) than he is that he got the money. Peters tells Leyden as he is led away by the police, to send him a copy of the novel he will write about Dimitrios– “I’ll have a lot of time to read it where I’m going.” He adds as the film dissolves: “You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.”

The film deftly mixes fact with fiction, as Ambler’s not remorseful anti-hero is based upon one of the world’s greatest schemers, Basil Zaharoff, a billionaire munitions king. His early career mirrors the one of the scheming Dimitrios Makropoulos. The rich flavor in the film comes from the lead character actors who are both witty and tacky. They, along with the strong performance by Scott, give this thriller the life it needs. The story itself is too superficial to be anything more than a B-type of programmer.