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Friday, April 27, 2018

Warners Mastering The International-Set Thriller

Masters Of Menace Greenstreet and Lorre in The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

Warners went heavy on Euro seasoning for 40's thrillers set amidst unrest over there, and I'd guess shows like Dimitrios did well once foreign markets got back on postwar footing. Drop Warner sound for subtitles or crude dubbing and you might think it continental-produced. Dimitrios was based on an Eric Ambler story, and that was emphasized in selling. Flashbacks head for a same briar patch that claimed Passage To Marseille of a same year; these had become almost a signature at Warners. A new star seemed born in Zachary Scott as Ultimate Cad, his Dimitrios referred to by Peter Lorre's character as brilliant and a mastermind, though there's scant evidence of that in the narrative. Dimitrios plays instead as a kind of monster who apparently can't be killed, this maybe explaining how The Mask Of Dimitrios made ways to more than one "horror" list maintained by 1944 columnists.

It is for Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to sustain interest, which they do at leisurely conversation throughout. Here was occasion where words took precedence over derring-do, audiences wanting nothing more from the pair than to hear them fence verbally. Greenstreet/Lorre had been spun off Bogart vehicles where they menaced and/or died of some intrigue or other. The Mask Of Dimitrios surprised for having nothing to do with the present war, despite settings that would indicate it. Maybe we were late enough in the conflict for Warners to think better of doing product that would be dated right from the gate. Jean Negulesco directed, an early credit and his first on "A" setting. For many accomplished shorts he'd done for WB, Negulesco had no problem adjusting to that company's feature tempo.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

You have never seen a contemporary non American ad for the release of this movie.

Here is one.

9:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff is thumbs-up for the Greenstreet-Lorre team:

Dear John:

I enjoy THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS whenever I run across it -- swell intrigue, enticing Warner atmosphere, ace Lorre and Greenstreet -- but you hit the nail on the head when you note that the Scott character never comes close to living up to his advance ballyhoo. It weakens the story; with Lorre and Greenstreet (in top form) on the case, this guy (no reflection on Scott's performance) isn't nearly the diabolically worthy adversary the movie needs. [Kasper and Joel would have simply dispatched a gunsel to take him out.] But the picture is still worth watching; anyway, I daresay I could watch an hour or so of these two actors reading aloud from the Financial Times without risking boredom.

[A long time fantasy: Lorre and Greenstreet in a production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot.]

-- Griff

12:38 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

My favorite teaming is THE VERDICT. The whodunit that drives the plot is no great shakes, but the real story is better stuff and the relationship is very different: Greenstreet is a Scotland Yard legend, retired in disgrace after the execution of an innocent man. Lorre is an artist who's not quite as cool and worldly as he wants to be - almost a Lorre wanna-be. The artist worships the inspector as a father figure, and might easily have been played by a juvenile leading man.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Yup, these two were the greatest! But I'd vote for THREE STRANGERS as my favorite, even though I believe it gives them less screen time together.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Sergio Mims said...

One of my guilty pleasures. Not a classic but a near perfect example of Warner's films during the 1940's when they were at the peak of their game in their high style. Even the trailer is great but watch it after you see the picture. It gives too much away. It's available on Warner Archive

11:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers "The Mask Of Dimitrios":

"The Third Man" is so similar to "The Mask of Demitrios" that I wonder whether it was based upon the earlier film. In each, the master criminal at the heart of the story, who is thought to be dead, is a man of mystery, introduced to the audience through the recollections of colleagues in crime, victims, and lovers. Both depend much on the pungent atmosphere of a society devastated by war. Where there are changes, however, they are invariably to the good of "The Third Man." Eric Ambler, a highly influential writer of thrillers, created the prototype, but Graham Greene, a superb writer himself, would of course improve upon it. Unlike the Irana Preveza of "The Mask of Demitrios" with Demitrios Makropoulos, Anna Schmidt in "The Third Man" remains in love with Harry Lime, suggesting that, while he may have been a criminal, he must also have been possessed of a certain charm, to have won such a woman. The police do not simply throw up their hands as to whether such a man is alive or dead, but are themselves highly skeptical that he might have checked out in so prosaic a fashion. And the man who is the catalyst in resolving the mystery becomes not simply a truth-seeker, such as Peter Lorre's pacifistic journalist, but the Holly Martins of Joseph Cotton, someone who, in his naivety, still thinks of himself as a friend. All this is to the good of Graham Greene's revision, in its nuance and complexity, but of course, the most telling difference is the delightful performance of Orson Welles as Lime. He is well worth the wait, unlike the Demitrios of Zachary Scott, for if anything, his ruthlessness is only enhanced by his ready wit and ease with a bon mot, even if these were contributed by Welles himself. One is almost sorry that he is brought to bay at the end and killed, this time for real, and apparently it was a common enough sentiment for there to be a really good British radio series following the film, "The Adventures of Harry Lime" (broadcast in the U.S. as "The Lives of Harry Lime"), with Orson Welles once more playing Lime and writing several of the episodes. There is a somewhat different tone in the radio series, and one might have the impression that Lime was perhaps the victim of circumstances, dying in Vienna as he did--that and a police officer much too stalwart and cynical--but then, it is Lime telling his own story, rather than those who knew him.

4:45 PM  

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