Question: what do you get when you mix The Usual Suspects, The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon? A good evening of viewing, not to mention a cast of characters making for a highly memorable if slightly dark and frightening dinner party, you might also get something along the lines of this fantastic film. The Mask of Dimitrios, based on the Eric Ambler novel A Coffin for Dimitrios, tells the story a Dutch mystery writer’s (Peter Lorre) growing obsession with and investigation into the story of a murder victim, Dimitrios Makropolous. Dimitrios’ body has washed ashore while Lorre is on vacation in Istanbul (not Constantinople!) and Lorre’s invited to the morgue by a colorful Turkish investigator with his own aspirations to mystery writing. Lorre’s filled in on some details about the dastardly, sadistic Dimitrios, who appeared on the radar more than a decade earlier when he left an accomplice behind to take the rap and be executed for a murder he committed. Increasingly intrigued and smelling a great story, Lorre resolves to write a book based on this mystery man. His “research” leads him on a trek all over wartime Europe in an effort to retrace Dimitrios’ steps, starting in Greece and subsequently through a number of countries and flashbacks. In Bulgaria, you meet Faye Emerson playing Dimitrios’ former amour and most sympathetic victim, in a great little episode that shows how Dimitrios left her broke and believing in his empty promises, broken down from disappointment and waiting, transformed from alluring femme to forgotten mark. Dimitrios had equally devastating effects on men, as we learn in the flashback involving Victor Francen as a Yugoslavian government employee. He’s maneuvered by Dimitrios into a gambling debt so crushing that he has no way out of it except spying and stealing mining secrets for Dimitrios, in exchange for promises (and again, nothing but promises) to pay off the man’s debt in return. One story after another reveals and reinforces the picture of Dimitrios as a base, heartless, ruthless man, a mysterious, destructive and fearsome figure, while elevating him to a near mythic level by the utter wreckage of lives and intensity of resentments left in his wake. He’s a cinematic grandfather to The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Soze, and described in similarly epic and hyperbolic terms: “I’ve known many men, but I’ve only been afraid of one of them… Dimitrios.” It soon becomes apparent that rumors of Dimitrios’ death are greatly exaggerated, and in fact he’s crossing paths with Lorre, so now on top of the myth he gains the mystique of being creepily undead and omnipresent, eventually emerging from brief, almost hallucinatory appearances into full view like a golem constructed and given life by the nursed resentments of destroyed lives.
All this raving about the story and I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most outstanding features of this film, and what it has in common with The Maltese Falcon, and that’s the pairing of Lorre with his frequent (8 times to be exact) costar, his physical opposite number and perfectly matched foil, Sydney Greenstreet. As Peters/Peterson, Greenstreet appears in Istanbul, curious about the demise of Dimitrios; after checking the morgue, he heads for his own reasons on a parallel course with Lorre. They have a couple near misses before meeting, at which point Greenstreet, who we learn was once a crony of Dimitrios, provides some information that kicks the story up another level and involves Lorre in a tangled scheme. Not going to spoil the ending, but I will say that Lorre ends up with more than enough juicy material for his book, at least one captive reader, and even better, remains alive to write the opus. Since we’re talking juicy, Lorre and Greenstreet, as you would expect, give a master class in droll, understated and captivating acting, with the help of terribly modern, irony and sarcasm laden repartee delivered with a shrug and guaranteed to elicit snickers, such gems as, “He was my friend! No, he wasn’t my friend, but he was a nice man!” You can, and should, also catch Lorre and Greenstreet in Negulesco’s espionage movie The Conspirators,and the really excellent mystery The Verdict, next time those are anywhere near your eyeballs (they occaisionally air on TCM).
Eric Ambler’s book was written in 1940 with the story set in 1938, as the war was brewing and storm clouds gathering in Europe. Just as Lorre bases his novel within a movie on Dimitrios, novelist Eric Ambler largely based the movie’s source material on a real life intelligence operative and arms dealer with a similarly distinct moniker, one Sir Basil Zaharoff, a character larger than life and stranger than fiction, of indeterminable birthplace and unknown allegiances. Multilingual, resourceful and seemingly everywhere at once, this real-life “Dimitrios” was likely as much a creation of tall tales and exaggeration as his novel and movie doppelganger. Born Basileios Zacharias somewhere in Turkey, he was a man forged and entirely self-made through hardship and poverty. He left Constantinople (not Istanbul!) in his youth under a cloud of suspicion, was apprehended for theft in England, then slipped away to Greece where he changed his name. From there he seemed to weave in and out of an endless series of identities invented, constructed and uncovered, deals made, close escapes pulled off, and a legend born, if only apocryphally.
The movie actually recreates one episode in Zaharoff’s life (or death) when a false report of his demise is cleared up by a friend who has the body exhumed. Zaharoff was just in his twenties when he got involved in weapons dealing, and not just the easily moved items like guns but also cannons and pretty much everything up to and including submarines. He had more than enough customers, what with the perfect storm of growing militarism and nationalism, craze for new weapons technology, increasing tensions and constant threat of conflict across Europe in the early years of the Twentieth century. Along the way he bought up lots of stock in the companies whose products he peddled, stole and broke a number of hearts, including some from notable royal families, and built a near mythic reputation. He was Forrest Gump crossed with a James Bond/Dr. Evil villain bent on influencing history; he was somehow present, or at least purported to be, at the most pivotal moments on the continent and forever rubbing elbows with the most famous names, movers and shakers of the church, state and business of the times. He eventually owned a bank, several vital shipping docks as well as a casino in Monte Carlo. He made huge strategic political donations, and many charitable ones, all of which combined to help him get a knighthood in 1918. He refused to have photos taken of him until he was old, and he was that, living to the age (if you can believe even that) of 87. Sir Basil Zaharoff died in 1936, four years before Ambler’s book “about” him was published.
Now, such an influential mystery man would certainly be a dream role for any actor in any era, and once you know the tip of the iceberg of all that background, to see Dimitrios as a kind of invisible, lurking character in a movie that bears his name seems almost criminal, but that’s exactly what he is in Mask of Dimitrios, dominating the plot and conversation but remaining elusive and relatively little seen, appearing mainly in flashback until the last 12 minutes. The role was the combination of a studio making a budget-friendly choice and providing the perfect opportunity to test a new actor, resulting in a memorable movie debut for said newcomer Zachary Scott. However limited it may have been in terms of screen time, it was rich in every other way, as it dedicated the whole plot to discussion and speculation about him, and surrounded him with great actors whose main function was to build up his character and prepare us for his appearance. Little wonder that after such a dramatic introduction, Scott was to remain known as a reliable baddie and appealing yet cold and elusive villain, no matter how many other types of roles he tackled.
Besides being an auspicious start for Zachary Scott, Mask of Dimitrios was for the director Jean Negulesco a welcome restart, after years of disappointment and waiting for his big break. Back in 1941, work on his first feature, Singapore Woman, was less than satisfactory to Warners, who benched Negulesco during the shoot and kept him seated for a few years until Dimitrios. Negulesco, who left his native Romania as a teen, supported himself and went to art school in France. After serving in World War 1 he continued as a painter and stage and set designer, enjoying some degree of success in Europe before bringing his work to the United States in the late 1920s. Very soon thereafter he got into moviemaking as a scene advisor (sketching and planning the famous pre-code rape scene in The Story of Temple Drake) which got him a job as assistant and second unit director, and from there he worked upward by assisting on B’s and directing tons of short films. It was Negulesco who suggested a remake of The Maltese Falcon, a great idea which the studio acknowledged by promptly yanking the project from Negulesco and handing it over to John Huston. After the false start that was Singapore Woman, it was either Anatole Litvak or Huston who suggested A Coffin for Dimitrios to Negulesco, which had to that point been a promising but stubborn concept that no one had yet managed to adapt for the screen either to anyone’s liking or with any semblance of sense. With an extra push by Negulesco’s rather persuasive agent, who tried (unsuccessfully) to bet Jack Warner that Negulesco would helm the movie straight to an Oscar win, this project ended up in the director’s hands. Negulesco tried the studio’s patience once more though, by immediately setting his heart on Lorre and Greenstreet for the leads, which must have seemed puzzling, unusual and the very opposite of mainstream but obviously more than paid off. After the success of Dimitrios, Negulesco had a great run of films including The Conspirators, Nobody Lives Forever, as well as his most notable ones, Humoresque, Johnny Belinda, the cool Richard Widmark/ Ida Lupino noir Road House, Three Came Home, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Mudlark and Three Coins in the Fountain.
A story that so deftly dances across the continent (actually, around a darkened Warners lot) certainly was complemented by the use of suitably exotic music, which happened to have some foggy and unclear origins of its own, namely the “theme,” Perfidia. The beautiful song about betrayal was published with credit to Mexican composer Alberto Dominguez in 1939, though it was performed some years before. It was a big hit in 1940 for Xavier Cugat, who may have co-written the English lyrics as well, though Milton Leeds usually gets sole credit for writing those, and it’s been covered countless times since, some 150 versions by some estimates, spanning, like all great melodies are able to do, every genre from big band to reggae. The tune can also be heard in Casablanca’s Paris flashback and in Now, Voyager’s nightclub scene. The title, which translates from the Spanish as false and deceptive, seems written especially for the film’s main character—“my heart cries out, Perfidia!” Good luck getting it out of your head once you’ve heard it, but better you should deal with that earworm than stop to dwell too long on the mildly time-bending fact that the movie’s events take place before the song was written. Oh well, no use overthinking an incongruity best chalked up to movie magic. All you need to think about is marking this one on your calendar—Mask of Dimitrios is not to be missed.
see it THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15 @ 10:00 AM est on TCM
(a version of this article was previously published in Dark Pages Magazine)
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