In the wake of their success co-starring in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Warner Brothers realized they had captured lightning in a bottle with the teaming of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The studio quickly paired the two character actors again in the Bogart films Casablanca and Passage to Marseilles. In 1944, Warners decided to give Greenstreet and Lorre what amounted to starring roles in the thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, based on the Eric Ambler novel and set in pre-WWII Europe. (Lorre received fourth billing in the film behind Greenstreet, Zachary Scott and Faye Emerson, but in terms of screen time, he is the star of the movie.) Lorre plays Cornelius Leyden, a mild mannered crime novelist who is visiting Istanbul, where he becomes intrigued by the murder of a man named Dimitrios, who was a local legend in terms of his criminal activities. Dimitrios's body has washed ashore, as shows evidence that he has been stabbed to death. Sensing a good story in the murder, Leyden pursues the man's background and finds out he was known throughout Europe for his audacious crimes. Leyden decides to track down those who interacted with Dimitrios, including jilted partner and abandoned girlfriends. All agree that he was a charismatic cad who worked his way up from petty crimes in Istanbul to being an integral part of Europe's pre-war espionage activities. Leyden is followed in his footsteps by Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), an affable man of mystery who is also obsessed with tracking down Dimitrios's acquaintances and activities leading up to the man's death. After a rocky introduction at the point of Peters' gun, the two men forge an alliance and travel through Turkey, Yuguoslavia and finally Paris in their quest. Along the way, they determine that Dimitrios is very much alive and well, having used another man's murder as an opportunity to fake his own death. Peters is determined to use that information to blackmail Dimitrios and thus ensure acquiring enough money to afford a comfortable retirement.
Much of the story is told in flashbacks as various individuals relate their experiences with Dimitrios to Leyden and Peters. As played by Zachary Scott, Dimitrios lives up to his legend as handsome womanizer and persuasive businessman, though each of his friends and partners ends up being abruptly jilted in some manner, as Dimitrios moves on to his next scam. (Jack Warner had high hopes for Scott becoming the studio's next great leading man, but his interest in promoting Scott seemed to wane and the actor never really acquired the stardom that his role in this film would seem to have assured.) Leyden and Peters also meet Irana, an entertainer in a squalid Istanbul cafe, who relates how Dimitrios became her lover and ensured that her fortunes improved. However, when she loaned him her savings, he abandoned her, never to be heard from again. Although nursing a broken heart and bearing resentment for the man on one level, she admits she still carries a torch and his abandonment of her left her in a depressed state of mind that still continues. (Apparently, once you've experienced Dimitrios, no other man comes to close as a lover.) As Leyden and Peters close in on their prey, the stakes become higher - and they realize their lives are very much at risk.
The Mask of Dimitrios, ably directed by Jean Negulesco, is a joy to watch. It doesn't have the artistic pretensions of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, but it is a thoroughly entertaining movie. Lorre and Greenstreet's "Mutt and Jeff" act continues to present them as essentially the same character in film after film, but that doesn't in any way compromise the delight of watching these two eccentric actors at the peak of their careers. The supporting performances are also equally delightful and the film bares all the rich artistic hallmarks of a WB release from the era.
The Warner Archive has released the film as a burn-to-order DVD. The transfer is excellent. An original trailer is included that features specially-filmed footage of Greenstreet and Lorre addressing the audience. The DVD is region free.
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