In 1931, Fritz Lang directed Austro-Hungarian László Löwenstein — better known as Peter Lorre — in M, a dark and cynical tale of a child murderer. Its focus on criminality beneath the surface of urban life and use of German Expressionist style reflect trends we would see in classic film noir, directed by Lang and many others.
A decade later, Americans would come to known Lorre as Joel Cairo in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), a film many critics identify as the first film noir. But Lorre starred in another, lesser-known picture that exemplifies even more fully the noir style: French director Robert Florey’s The Face Behind the Mask.
The film is about an immigrant watchmaker who becomes disfigured in a house fire and watches his life’s dreams vanish before him. Once an optimistic greenhorn, young Janos Szabo becomes “Johnny,” an angry man with a grudge against society who embarks on a life of crime with the help of his intelligence and a mask that hides his facial deformity.
When Johnny finds love with a blind woman (Evelyn Keyes), however, he returns to his pre-accident desires for a simple, happy life and leaves the mob. Will they let him leave? Can he find redemption in a woman’s love? I won’t answer these questions and spoil the ending — except to say it’s powerful.
Beyond the specific B noir plot, it’s a pleasure to see Lorre play a dynamic lead like Janos/Johnny. The opening scene of the happy, idealistic European immigrant shows a side of Lorre I’d never seen before, making plain his range and talent. How troubling it still is that he was so soon reduced to one-dimensional Hollywood character roles.
I hope I’ve tempted you to join in the live tweet of The Face Behind the Mask on Sunday, 1/17 at 9pm ET with the #BNoirDetour crew.