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'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

Chasing the shadows of noir.


The Mask of Dimitrios

Director: Jean Negulesco
Cast: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1944
USDVD release date: 2013-05-21

Freshly available on demand from Warner Archive is this slice of 1940s atmosphere that contributed to the burgeoning style dubbed "film noir" by French critics. At the time, its chief selling point was in being based on a popular novel by Eric Ambler (a.k.a. A Coffin for Dimitrios) and also for being the fifth in a series of thrillers co-starring Sydney Greenstreet (identified in the trailer as "The Fat Man") with Peter Lorre ("The Little Man"). Their previous films were The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Background to Danger (also based on Ambler), and Passage to Marseille.

This time around, Lorre plays a sympathetic and befuddled crime novelist who researches the career of a mysterious criminal named Dimitrios (Zachary Scott in his slimy, beaky, pencil-moustached film debut) after the latter's body has washed up on the beach in Istanbul. Like Citizen Kane, the film is structured around flashbacks as various characters around the Continent offer sordid snapshots from the scoundrel's rise in fortunes in the escalating chaos of pre-war Europe. The most mysterious character to dominate the proceedings is one Mr. Peters (the masterly Greenstreet), a smooth yet dangerous gentleman whose motives are unclear. Few viewers will be surprised by the quite inevitable revelation, and the resolution can't help feeling contrived.

Ambler's twisty and resourceful influence towers over the thriller genre, and the sordid Dimitrios might have inspired Graham Greene's more sophisticated and ambiguous Harry Lime in The Third Man. Director Jean Negulesco and great photographer Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) maneuver the camera closely around the characters and their densely decorated surroundings of shadowy bric-a-brac. This visual pleasure combines with the pleasure of Greenstreet, Lorre and the character actors around them to offer a film that's sleekly watchable if ultimately as insubstantial as a rumour.

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