Peter Lorre is often thought of as the lesser of the horror masters of the Golden Age. The fact he only made a handful of films in the genre during the ‘30s and ‘40s probably has a lot to do with that, but his screen presence was a formidable as any of his contemporaries. The Face Behind the Mask has elements of many genres and is prime for rediscovery.
Janos (Lorre) is new to America and as he leaves the boat in New York, he’s befriended by an Irish cop O’Hara (Don Beddoe) who takes pity on the naïve young dreamer who’s looking to make a living in a new country. O’Hara points him in the direction of an affordable hotel, but when a fire rages through the building, Janos is badly burned. With a deformed face and no prospects of work, he falls in with a kindly crook Dinky (George E. Stone). He soon uses his skills to become the head of the underground organisation. His ill-gotten gains give him enough money to buy a new face albeit in mask form. Still dreadfully unhappy, Janos bumps into (literally) a blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) and the pair being a relationship built on the good person Janos really is.
With the tough elements of the gangster film and visually disturbing parts of the horror genre, The Face Behind the Mask is a satisfying melding of styles. Lorre is superb as Janos, loveably innocent in the early scenes and then eaten up with hatred following the fire. His descent into crime isn’t one done by choice but rather necessity and bitterness at a world that shuns him because of his appearance. The romance element is handled beautifully, which makes the climax all the more heartbreaking. There is only one brief moment where we see Janos’ charred face, but it packs a massive punch, and we can imagine it would have been truly shocking when the film was first released. Director Robert Florey was ousted from making Dracula (he was given Murders in the Rue Morgue instead) but he had an impressive CV of films and would later go on to direct episodes of all the major anthology shows of the sixties. However, this is arguably his masterpiece for genre fans.
Running little over an hour, you could be forgiven for dismissing this as a B-movie programmer, but there’s much more to it and will stay with you longer than others in its ilk. Admirably, Australian label Imprint has given the film a suitably impressive complement of extras. They all add something to the appreciation of the movie and make it a worthwhile purchase for fans of classic cinema.