Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is an immigrant from Hungary newly arrived in America. Young and hopeful he wants to find work and make enough money to have his fiancé join him. He gets lost looking for a hotel a stranger recommended. The stranger sends him on a wild goose chase. He stops to get something cold to drink and can’t find his money. He runs up to the nearest cop to report the crime. With the patrol cop is a plain clothes detective named Lt. Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). O’Hara takes pity on Janos and tries to help him figure out where he was the last time he looked for his money. Janos realizes that he pinned his money to his shirt for safekeeping. O’Hara then directs him to a reasonably priced hotel in the area.
While Janos settles in for the night another hotel patron leaves a small sterno unattended. Janos is trapped in the resulting fire, his face horribly disfigured. Although Janos has many talents the sight of his face freaks everyone out and no one will give him a job. At the end of his rope he is down by the river contemplating suicide.
Out of the shadows comes Dinky (George E. Stone). Dinky is a small time crook that is part of a gang. The leader, Jeff Jeffries (James Seay), is in Sing Sing and won’t be out for a few months. Dinky is a happy go lucky crook that isn’t put off by Janos’ appearance at all. He calls Janos Johnny. They strike up a friendship. They end up out of money and living in a car at the salvage yard. Dinky is supposed to do a job burglarizing a store but gets sick. When Janos takes his place he finds out that another thing he’s good at is disarming burglar alarms. Janos takes over the gang and when Jeff finally gets out of prison he ends up demoted to henchman. All’s well and good in the burglary business.
While he’s been side stepping alarms Janos has been going to plastic surgeons to see if he can get his face fixed. The damage to his face is too extensive so he commissions a realistic looking latex mask that covers his head. Now he can walk around and look fairly human without too many stares.
Janos meets and falls in love with Helen (Evelyn Keyes). Helen has been blind since she was young and has a love of life that impresses Janos and gives him hope. Janos begins to believe he can have a reasonably normal and happy life with Helen and wants to quit the burglar business. Leaving his life of crime isn’t without its problems when Jeff thinks that Janos has betrayed them.
“The Face Behind the Mask” was released in 1941 and was directed by Robert Florey. It is a crime drama and a film noir. The movie is based on the play “Interim” by Thomas Edward O’Connell.
The film was written expressly for Peter Lorre. Reviews of the film were not good and Lorre didn’t view it as anything special either. That’s a shame since it really is good and Lorre’s performance is excellent. Lorre comes as close as possible to playing multiple roles without actually playing different characters. At first he is the starry eyed innocent in the land of milk and honey and then as the jaded world weary man almost without hope. Finally he is a lost soul that tries to nurture a spark of hope when he thinks he finally may have found a reason to live and love. Lorre manages to glide between each character image with ease.
Most of the time when Lorre is scarred you only see the back of his head. It’s when he is wearing the mask that you again see him from the front. The make-up on Lorre is eerie and startling. According to Lorre "I put on dead white makeup, used two strips of adhesive tape to immobilize the sides of my face, and for the rest of it I used my own facial expression to give the illusion of the mask." Whatever he did, it was awesome. He gives the impression that what you are looking at is an actual mask. There is a blankness to his face yet his voice is full of emotion. It’s quite haunting.
There’s a lot of emotion to the film but it doesn’t get bogged down in wrenching melancholy. At about an hour and eight minutes long it can’t afford to. It’s concise and to the point. It’s also good. It really is a lost gem.