The Mask of Dimitrios was based on a suspense novel published in 1939 by the English author Eric Ambler. The screenplay was written by Frank Gruber. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, a Romanian émigré screenwriter, who had directed a series of short films for Warner Brothers in the early 1940s. This was his first credit as a feature film director. It was made from November, 1943 to January, 1944 and was released in June, 1944. The music is by Adolph Deutsch.
The picture is full of exotic atmosphere,
à la Casablanca, and two of the character actors that gave that film, and its predecessor The Maltese Falcon, a lot of their style, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, are at the center of this movie. Zachary Scott, in his first film, plays Dimitrios himself. Faye Emerson, who had recently made headlines because she had just married one of FDR’s sons, is as close to a female lead as this film has. I am fond of several of the minor performances – Kurt Katch as Haki, Steve Geray as Bulic, Victor Francen as Grodek – and of course, I must mention the divine Florence Bates, who puts in a cameo appearance at the start of the film as Mme. Chavez.
The critical reception of this movie is better today than when it was released in 1944. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called its flashback structure “tediously trite” and observed, “Seldom has this reviewer waited so patiently—and in vain—to be surprised”. Pauline Kael, who reviewed films for the New Yorker in the 1970s, wrote that the picture “had more mood than excitement”. In a more contemporary review, Channel 4 in the U.K. allowed that “the film promises more action than it delivers, but there are opportunities for fine performances by Lorre and, especially, Greenstreet as the master crook. Atmospheric cinematography and an intriguing script turn this into a fine example of film noir with an immensely entertaining cast.” And as film noir, whatever that might originally have meant, passed into the language as a term meaning pictures from the 1940s with a dark visual style as well as a cynical outlook, The Mask of Dimitrios turned into a movie to which people would refer. Some people write, it’s a good script, some people write, it’s a bad script. It might just be that the conventional form of the typical film story of the time is violated by the script. Leslie Hallowell, the British reviewer calls it a “generally successful international intriguer, moodily shot in evocative sets, and remarkable for its time in that the story is not distorted to fit romantic stars: character actors bear the entire burden.” The audiences of the time liked it, despite this difference. It did well for Warners and launched Negulesco on a career as a feature director. I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.