Films about the immigrant experience in the United States often run the gamut from comedy (Coming to America, Moscow on the Hudson) to historical depictions (Hester Street, The New Land) to autobiographical dramas (Elia Kazan’s America, America) and even horror films such as Netflix’s 2021 thriller, No One Gets Out Alive. Still, one of my favorite movies about a foreigner’s adventures on these shores is The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which stars Peter Lorre as an Eastern European refugee looking to start a new life in New York City.
Throughout his film career in Hollywood, Hungarian actor Peter Lorre was rarely able to find a role as memorable or as compelling as his portrayal of the child murderer in the 1931 German film M, directed by Fritz Lang. There was no shortage of roles that accented his oddness in both appearance and voice but he often fell into a typecasting rut where he played variations on mad doctors (Mad Love, 1935), murderers (Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940), sad sacks (Passage to Marseille, 1944) and comic parodies of himself (You’ll Find Out, 1940). On rare occasions, Lorre sometimes broke away from his stereotyped screen persona to play more conventional parts such as the detective Mr. Moto in a series of low-budget programmers. But even when he found himself cast in major A pictures like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Casablanca (1942), he was always the outsider, a strange and unusual fringe character distinguished by his eccentricities. Lorre expertly exploits this aspect of himself in the lesser-known The Face Behind the Mask (1941), a low-budget melodrama that transcends its meager origins, emerging as a poetic tragedy that features one of the actor’s most expressive performances since M.
In a role that could be seen as autobiographical and a metaphor for Lorre’s declining fortunes in the film industry, The Face Behind the Mask introduces us to Janos Szabo, a Hungarian immigrant who arrives in New York City full of hope and dreams about the new opportunities awaiting him. Delighted to find any work at all, he takes a job as a dishwasher but tragedy strikes when he is severely burned in a rooming house fire. Unable to find work because of his horribly scarred face, Janos contemplates suicide on the waterfront but is distracted from his melancholy by a two-bit hoodlum named Dinky (George E. Stone) who takes him in and introduces him to a life of crime.
Motivated by his desperate desire to appear normal again (through the miracle of plastic surgery), Janos dons a life-like rubber mask and becomes an accomplished master thief and ringleader of a criminal gang, all the while amassing the necessary funds for his expensive operation. His obsessive self-interest, however, fades when he meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), a blind woman whose optimistic outlook on life changes him, despite her impoverished circumstances. Their love affair and subsequent marriage provides a brief respite of tenderness before The Face Behind the Mask enters its tragic final act in which Janos’s gang turns against him and plots a revenge that backfires in disaster for all.
The climax, set in a desolate stretch of desert with Janos tied to an abandoned plane, is a bleak counterpoint to the immigrant’s hopeful beginnings. More than anything, The Face Behind the Mask is a vision of the American dream gone horribly wrong but under the artful direction of Robert Florey along with Franz F. Planer’s atmospheric cinematography and Lorre’s sensitive performance, it becomes a rich, multi-layered character study, a gem among the Columbia Pictures programmers of the forties.
The film also manages in its brief sixty-nine minute running time to look beyond the clichés of most crime melodramas of its period to depict some truly idiosyncratic streetwise characters, particularly Dinky. He is the only person to accept Janos as he is and not register shock or repulsion at his mutilated features. Their sense of loyalty to each other as the film progresses is as touching in its own way as Janos’s tender romance with Helen.
Florey also takes great care to evoke both pity and compassion in scenes that normally would be played for sheer horror in the hands of other directors. For instance, the scene in which Lorre’s head bandages (a precursor to Edith Scob’s tormented heroine of Eyes Without a Face, 1960) are removed for him to see focuses on the reactions of the nurse as she nervously watches in anticipation until the grim reality registers on her face.
Florey also avoids any explicit close-ups of Lorre’s destroyed face choosing instead to reveal it briefly and in partial shadow as Lorre glimpses himself in a wardrobe mirror before going berserk with despair.
Based on the radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, The Face Behind the Mask was not a film that Lorre held in high esteem. His co-star Don Beddoe, who plays the police officer who befriends Janos in the film, once said, “I don’t think Peter was very much impressed with The Face Behind the Mask. His other successes, such as M, made him pretty blasé about this particular venture.”
Lorre could also be a difficult actor to direct at times. According to Stephen D. Youngkin in The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, “While waiting for filming to begin [on location at the Oxnard sand dunes], he [Lorre] drank his breakfast, a glass of Pernod, then another mixed with a split of Moet. Disquieted, director Robert Florey sat and listened to Lorre joke about needing liquid refreshment to forget the silly dialogue and grimaces called for the role. The actor promised to behave, said Florey, but “didn’t keep his word and he didn’t hold his liquor well. I could handle him till lunch time without much difficulty, but as the afternoon progressed Peter foundered into a world of his own, becoming gloomy or playful, melancholy or senseless, not taking direction but never hostile…I tried to get all his important scenes photographed during the morning hours, which was not always possible.”
Like his character in The Face Behind the Mask, Lorre had undergone some physical changes since his last film, You’ll Find Out. His decaying teeth, which had troubled him for years and resulted in pyorrhea and chronic bad breath, were finally replaced with dentures, softening his features considerably. It also may have been a factor in earning him more prominent supporting roles beginning that same year with They Met in Bombay and The Maltese Falcon.
In terms of his actual makeup for The Face Behind the Mask, Lorre stated “I put on dead white make-up, used two strips of adhesive tape to immobilize the sides of my face, and for the rest of it I used my own facial expression to give the illusion of a mask.”
Despite Lorre’s low regard for the film, he delivers a remarkable performance, considering the limitations of the mask, and conveys an astonishing range of emotions from childish glee to mindless rage to deep depression to cool detachment to a blissful spiritual state.
Few reviewers at the time singled out his performance for praise or even acknowledged that The Face Behind the Mask was something more than a routine programmer, despite the fact that its popularity encouraged Columbia Pictures to re-release it two years later. In fact, Variety dismissed the film with “It’s not so much likely to scare audiences as make them a little sick…it’s all too unpleasant.”
Sixty-five years later, The Face Behind the Mask enjoys a considerably better reputation. Phil Hardy’s authoritative reference work, The Encyclopedia of Horror Films, regards it as “A marvelous little film…Florey’s subtly stylized direction, Planer’s superb camerawork and first-rate performances (Lorre, cleverly made up, has rarely been better) weave it into a miracle of tenderness.”
For many years The Face Behind the Mask was one of the rare Peter Lorre films that eluded VHS and DVD collectors and the only way to catch it was to record it off TV from Turner Classic Movies or some other network. Finally, in May 2021, Imprint Records out of Australian released a limited edition, region friendly Blu-ray set of the film featuring an audio commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode and other extras. Highly recommended.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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