The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

You know what’s great? Travel movies. The kind of film where folks move from city to city, country to country, enjoying the sights, talking with the locals, researching people they don’t know, getting involved in sordid tales of crime, espionage, murder, and eventually ending the matter in a filthy, condemned apartment in Paris with a little gunfire and bloodshed. That’s the kind of movie that really gets my gizzard. We need more movies like Euro Trip…only with The Bourne Identity levels of violence. Or maybe just The Bourne Identity with quirkier characters and less shaky cam. That would be nice too.

You’re an economics professor who has turned into a popular mystery writer. You take a vacation in Istanbul, and hey, turns out the local head of the police is a superfan. And he tells you all about a master criminal whose corpse just watched up on a beach with a stab wound in it. Is your first impulse “Yes, I need to know more and go see this dead body”? Because if it is, The Mask of Dimitrios is about you.

Peter Lorre is writer Cornelius Leyden, who learns of the recently deceased Dimitrios Makroupolous and decides he must know more about a man who murdered, spied, assassinated, stole, and blackmailed his way to the top, only to end up a body on a beach in a cheap suit. Leyden views the corpse, learns all he can in Istanbul from the local police, and then begins a tour of European cities where he meets with people who knew Dimitrios, usually for the wrong reasons. As he travels, he is followed and eventually threatened by a man named Peters, played by Sydney Greenstreet, who tells Leyden at gunpoint to continue his investigation but reveals the two can share information to make a lot of money in Paris. Leyden, intrigued, continues meeting the likes of Europe’s underworld until he eventually comes to a decision on Peters’ offer. This decision ends up embroiling the generally affable Leyden into exactly the sort of world that Dimitrios was involved in, and it’s also just as likely to end with a bullet for him. What he discovers in Paris from Peters and what the pair will end up doing is the second mystery, but the first is the strangle tale of Dimitrios, a ruthless man without morals or ethics, yet somehow intriguing and charming as a snake.

Lorre and Greenstreet got paired up a lot in the 1940s, typically as underworld figures despite Lorre’s tiny frame and Greenstreet’s tendency towards intelligent characters. They’re not the kind of guys you think of when you think of traditional toughs, yet they managed to pull off intimidation and threats of violence just as easily as they could wax poetic about the state of the world. Here, they give performances that are nuanced yet unusual, as Lorre’s Leyden is sucked in to a real life mystery that he thinks is perfectly safe while Greenstreet’s Peters despairs at the lack of kindness in the world while holding a gun. They’re an unusual pair, yet they get along well, with the one downfall of the film being their relationship not fully developing into a friendship the way it does in the source material.

Yes, The Mask of Dimitrios started life as a book, and the movie adheres faithfully for the most part but lacks a little in the punch and the morbidity of the finale. Still, it’s a novel featuring spycraft from a British author, and some of the best spy novels come from Britain. Perhaps you’re an Ian Fleming fan? James Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios in the novel From Russia, with Love. More into John le Carré? Then the bright eyed, curious everyman that is Leyden will interest you as a protagonist, as will the more realistic take on espionage, as Dimitrios manipulates one poor man into giving up government secrets to settle gambling debts. Don’t like either? I think you need to be looked over by a medical professional, because you’re quite clearly dead.

With a film set in 1938, one surprising element lacking is the overbearing nature of Nazi Germany, though the film deftly avoids the subject entirely, instead focusing on Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, a foray into Switzerland, and then inevitably France. By the time this film was released, US movies weren’t exactly big on the German market, what with the war and all, yet no reference is made to Germany beyond a few cracks about card games. Italy gets more attention as a nation paying spies to work, but that’s in the 1920s. The geopolitics of the ’20s is the central focus for what information Leyden uncovers, and the story feels more post-World War I than pre-World War II. Perhaps this was a relief to the audiences who saw it.

It’s also not a particularly violent film, despite the goings-on. As this is the era of the Hay’s Code, particularly its height with Joseph Breen enforcing it, you know the criminals cannot get away with their crimes, yet the murders and suicides that do occur are primarily handled off screen. Sound design and a referential gesture do far more to set up what happens to people than actually showing it, and as Dimitrios’ exploits are generally conveyed in flashback, it gives the chance for actors to sell the worst actions through their faces, be it a haggard former lover who tries to hide her fatigue through caked-on makeup or a grinning rich spymaster who chuckles at how funny he finds a man shooting himself after becoming a traitor. Because of this, Dimitrios comes across perhaps more monstrous; we don’t see his actions, merely those few survivors left in his wake.

Unfortunately, because so much is handled in flashback, and because there are so many concurrent mysteries going on in Leyden’s time as well as the contained mysteries of each section of the trip, The Mask of Dimitrios feels unfocused. The strange nature of the many characters Leyden meets does nothing to help this problem, and the mystery which Peters presents gets lost during the long spymaster’s tale. Yet the film is worth watching, partly for the pairing of Lorre and Greenstreet, partly for the various other actors who excel in their roles, and partly to see the mystery through.

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