The Face Behind the Mask (RKO 1940 69 mins) has a strong claim to being the first true noir of the classic cycle. Until recently I like many others gave this accolade to another b-movie from a year earlier: Stranger on the Third Floor (Columbia 1940 64 mins). It is interesting that both films star Peter Lorre.
Stranger on the Third Floor was a landmark film in a number of respects. The influence of a new generation of European expatriates and of German expressionism in the genesis of film noir is clearly evident. The screenplay is by Austro-Hungarian, Frank Partos, the director is Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, and photography is by the cult noir cinematographer, Italian-born Nicholas Musuraca. Between the cheesy opening and closing scenes is a tight claustrophobic thriller, where fear and paranoia is deftly portrayed both in reality and oneiristically. The nightmare sequence in this picture has to be perhaps the best dream-scape ever produced by Hollywood. We have here strong evidence supporting the view that noirs appeared with the emergence of a wider awareness of psychoanalysis and its motifs in America in the early 1940’s. In this proto-noir the role of the subconscious is explored. A newspaper reporter, whose court testimony has condemned a taxi-driver for murder, begins to doubt the guilt of the condemned man. This anxiety feeds into paranoia about a mysterious stranger he encounters in his boarding house, triggering a guilt-fuelled nightmare about the fate of an obnoxious neighbor where his own sanity is put on trial. Ingster and Musucara, and associate art director, Albert D’Agostini, as in all the great b-noirs, use set-bound budget constraints as brilliant artifice. The Caligari-like sets and the necessary noir lighting make the dream sequence profoundly surreal and compelling. But there is not the despairing bleakness of The Face Behind the Mask.
The Face Behind the Mask was made by b-director, Robert Florey, and lensed by the under-appreciated Franz Planer. There is a true gestalt operating here, the work of this team here is much more than you would expect from journeyman Florey. The script (from a story by Arthur Levinson) is by Paul Jarrico, who was later blacklisted in the wake of the HUAC witch-hunt. What distinguishes this picture is the pervasive mood of life ransomed to chaotic fate, and the dire consequences of social exclusion and injustice. The Face Behind the Mask is an iconic proto-noir which presages the motifs of a score of later noirs. There is no redemption or hope. A bleak ending where Lorre’s protagonist must wreak his own terrible vengeance on his persecutors and fate itself heralds the coming of classic noir.
Some may say the story is pure melodrama and contrived, and this is hard to refute, but the film goes far beyond these limitations to reach a sort of pulp integrity. A young man from Europe lands in New York full of dreams and boisterous love for his new homeland. A tragedy destroys those dreams. An uncaring society built on inequality and with no safety net steers him ineluctably to a life of crime as the boss of a heist gang. He gets a chance at redemption, but his sins have to be paid for.
Lorre is powerful as a man who must battle his own decency to overcome malevolent fate. He is ably supported by b-stalwart George E. Stone, as his buddy-in-crime, with a wonderful performance from a 24-yo Evelyn Keyes as a young blind woman: her portrayal is the closest to angelic I have ever seen on film. The economy and tautness of Florey’s direction is inspired. You never actually see a robbery. The progress of Lorre’s career as hoodlum is shown in a deft montage of dramatic newspaper headlines and scenes of cops berated for their failure to bring the gang to justice – imposed by the economics of the b picture yes – but still impressive. When the tragic denouement begins to unravel, Florey and Planer give us innovative low-angle Dutch framing shots to telegraph the disturbances to come. The American dream becomes a nightmare for a man who must steal to pay for a doctor to visit his sick friend. Plus ca change plus la meme chose.
This gutsy-b with ‘body and soul’ is a must see.