Face Behind the Mask, The (1941)

“People who look at me, they see a mask — artificial. But the face behind the mask — it’s mutated, hideous, a horrible nightmare out of which I can never awake!”

Synopsis:
After his face is badly scarred in a fire, a young immigrant watchmaker (Peter Lorre) resorts to a life of crime in order to pay for plastic surgery.

Genres:

Review:
The best scenes in this little-seen Peter Lorre vehicle occur in the first 15 minutes, when Lorre’s immigrant Janos (acting like he belongs in a Frank Capra film) wanders the streets of New York with an enormous grin on his face, happily believing that success is just around the corner. This sunny exposition makes it especially difficult to watch our likable protagonist experiencing such relentless suffering: first from hideous scarring, then from an inability to get any kind of work at all, due simply to prejudice against his shocking appearance. (One can’t help feeling immense gratitude for our current workplace anti-discrimination laws…)

Unfortunately, Lorre’s romance with a cloyingly sweet blind girl (Evelyn Keyes) — as well as his interactions with a bevy of stereotypical gangsters — drag down the second half of the film, with many scenes descending into unnecessary cliches. Whenever Lorre’s on the screen, however, we can’t help but be mesmerized by this tragic figure — a man who’s never desired anything other than the American Dream, but who finds himself foiled at every possible turn. Directed by the prolific Robert Florey, who made another film with Lorre a few years later: The Beast With Five Fingers (1946).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening scenes of the movie, in which the young and idealistic Janos falls in love with America
  • Peter Lorre’s sympathetic performance as Janos, a.k.a. “Johnny”
  • George E. Stone as “Dinky”, Johnny’s first true friend in New York

Must See?
No, though fans of Peter Lorre will undoubtedly want to check it out.

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One Response to “Face Behind the Mask, The (1941)”

  1. What makes this a must is Lorre’s performance. In the overview here, use of the word ‘mesmerized’ is apt; no matter what, we ache for him. Lorre is playing (as usual in most of his work) with such utter conviction that every other element of this melodramatic concoction takes a back seat – no small thanks to director Florey, whose imaginative handling helps what could have been laughable in lesser hands. The film also has a few of those awful cinematic moments – one in particular – that reflect life at its most baffling, when it seems most unfair. ‘Face…’ is a little over an hour long; a satisfying noir-esque morsel that says much about the ‘sense’ that life makes.

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