Arlecchino Cinema > 14:00
THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK
Original version with subtitles
THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK
Cinema is an art of faces, and films about facial transformations form a genre in which philosophical questions about identity are cloaked in melodrama, horror, and surrealism. In The Face Behind the Mask – as in both versions of A Woman’s Face (1938 and 1941), Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966), and Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome (1989) – the protagonist is driven to crime by his hideous disfigurement and society’s ostracism. If people are morally shaped by the way they look, can changing someone’s face change the person behind it? Based on a radio play, the script for The Face Behind the Mask was tailored to Peter Lorre, who plays Janos (Johnny) Szabo, a Hungarian immigrant literally de-faced by a hotel blaze. The cruelty of strangers turns him from a gentle, naïve optimist into a bitter criminal mastermind; few roles gave Lorre a wider em tional range, and he pulls out every stop. The chalk-white mask he wears is a sad, eerily elegant caricature of Lorre’s face. With the help of a little makeup, he becomes a ghost of himself, an expressionless mannequin with a scarred soul.
In its 68 minutes, this exemplary B-movie packs in brutal gangsters, an angelic blind girl, and a scathing parody of the American dream. One suspects the hand of leftwing screenwriter and future blacklistee Paul Jarrico in the touching friendship between Johnny and smalltime hood Dinky (George E. Stone), who lectures the down-and-out foreigner on how the system is rigged and only money matters, while the two descend a ladder of cheaper and cheaper flophouses, finally sleeping in a junkyard. Director Robert Florey, himself an immigrant from France, was staggeringly versatile, morphing from avant-garde pioneer to stylish director of low-budget programmers, from film historian to horror specialist to wrangler of the Marx Brothers. Here, he and Lorre sustain a raw-nerve intensity as the film hurtles from a jaunty opening to an ending whose bleak savagery recalls von Stroheim’s Greed.
Imogen Sara Smith
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal radiodramma Interim di Thomas Edward O’Connell. Scen.: Allen Vincent, Paul Jarrico, Arthur Levinson. F.: Frank F. Planer. M.: Charles Nelson. Scgf.: Lionel Banks. Mus.: Sidney Cutner. Int.: Peter Lorre (Janos Szabo), Evelyn Keyes (Helen Williams), Don Beddoe (Jim O’Hara), George E. Stone (Dinky), John Tyrrell (Watts), Stanley Brown (Harry), Al Seymour (Benson), James Seay (Jeff). Prod.: Wallace MacDonald per Columbia Pictures Corp.. 35mm. D.: 68’. Bn
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