The Face Behind the Mask (1941): Iconic proto-noir

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

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 (1941)

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.

11 thoughts on “The Face Behind the Mask (1941): Iconic proto-noir”

  1. “The nightmare sequence in this picture has to be perhaps the best dream-scape ever produced by Hollywood.”

    That’s quite a statement there in your assessment of STRANGER, but knowing that sequence well, I can’t argue.

    Sad to say I have not seen THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, but am always excited when I hear the names of Robert Florey, Peter Lorre and Evelyn Keyes (“her portrayal is the cloest to angelic as I’ve ever seen on film”) It’s very interesting that you feel that the film overcomes it’s melodramatic trappings to achieve a kind of “pulp integrity,” and that the film fullfills the underpinnings of later ‘classic’ noir by offering ‘no redemption or hope.’ Your lead-in on STRANGER of course was exceptional and exactly the ‘appetite wetter’ for the noir in central focus. It’s always thrilling to hear teh name Musuraca and D’Agostino!

    Another noir essay of astonishing scope, appreciation and expertise.

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  2. Tony said,”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…”

    Hi! Tony,
    I most definitely, agree with your rather accurately, description and assessment of the 1940 film The Face Behind the Mask. Since I recently acquired a copy of this film I have only watched it once. Therefore, I think that I will rewatch this film later this evening.(In order to think about some of the points that you have pointed out here in your review.)

    Tony said,”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)…”
    Tony, I think that you are in the
    “minority” this time… when you consider the 1941 film The Face Behind the Mask the first film noir, but believe me I respect your right to do so…I guess that you feel about this film the same way that I feel about Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho being the transitional film from film noir to neo-noir instead of, Welles’ Touch of Evil.

    Tony said,”Between the cheesy opening and closing scenes is a tight claustrophobic thriller, where fear and paranoia is deftly portrayed both in reality and oneiristically…”

    Tony, you had me at…hello, but then you lost me because I don’t think that the opening and ending scenes of the 1940 film Stranger on the Third Floor is/are cheesy, but the beginning of normal lives that descend into darkness, paranoia, false accusation, guilt, etc, etc, etc…only to be awaken from this nightmare in the end.(Once again I point your readers to author Eddie Muller’s book Dark City:The Lost World of Film Noir (See Pgs.109-110)

    (I was reading author Eddie Robson’s book this week entitled Film Noir and I think that he makes a good case in his book why Director Boris Ingster’s 1940 film Stranger on the Third Floor is considered the first film noir.)(See:pgs.7-17)

    I most definitely, agree with (Eddie) Robson’s assessment of the film Stranger on the Third …and I also respect your
    opinion too…when it comes to Florey’s 1940 film The Face Behind the Mask. But, I still think that the honour of first film noir belong to Ingster’s Stranger. This is just my opinion, but of course!

    By the way, what a nice “Italian” poster(?!?) and dark “noirish” screenshot…from the 1940 film The Face Behind the Mask
    Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉

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  3. @ Sam Juliano said,”Sad to say I have not seen THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, but am always excited when I hear the names of Robert Florey, Peter Lorre and Evelyn Keyes…

    Sam Juliano, I’am not 100% sure, but I think that I send you a copy of Florey’s film The Face Behind The Mask along with the Mother Lode.
    If you are unable to locate the original copy I will gladly send you another copy.

    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

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  4. Definitely worth a look Maurizio.

    DeeDee, yes I am out on a limb here, but I would pick-up on the ‘normality’ you talk about with respect to Stranger on the Third Floor. I think The Face Behind the Mask makes a stronger case as in that movie there is no return to ‘normality’ – this is the true heritage of noir – an unrelieved fatalism.

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  5. I saw this film today for the first time. I think I’ve seen several hundred noir movies of the ‘classic period’ by now and I’m working my way through Selby’s ‘Worldwide Film Noir Tradition’ which is how I came to this film under ‘F’, and saw it was available on YouTube. Even in a poor, Kindle-size version, it really stands out, and the ineluctability of the hero’s destiny, and the refusal to compromise with a happy ending (I kept expecting Lieutenant O’Hara to rescue Lorre from the error of his ways) truly speak of a noir sensibility. Let me just say that in a world where every semi-literate film lover thinks they’re a film noir critic, your mini-essay is a masterpiece of well-written conciseness; you really nailed it – such a pleasure to read. This might well be the best film noir site for intelligent, well-written reviews. Thank you.

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