Movie review: “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944)

mask of dimitrios

I fell in love with this small movie, “The Mask of Dimitrios,” the first time I saw it. I ululate with pleasure every time it’s on Turner Classic Movies, and I record it and watch it two or three times over.

Summary: Peter Lorre, a Dutch mystery writer, becomes interested in the death of a criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos in Istanbul. He follows Dimitrios’s story from Istanbul to Athens to Sofia to Geneva to Paris. He comes across all kinds of interesting people, all of whom know strange and incriminating things about poor dead Dimitrios. Then he realizes that Sydney Greenstreet, a jolly Englishman, seems to be following him on his journey of discovery . . .

Robert Osborne, the TMC host, calls this “no great shakes of a movie,” and a “guilty pleasure”: one of those noirish Warner Brothers movies in which people look mysterious and run up and down staircases.

He’s right about all of the above.

But the movie is a real pleasure, not just a guilty pleasure.

It is a pleasure to watch the creepy / plausible Peter Lorre make his way through Europe, discovering what he can about Dimitrios. (This is one of those movies in which we see a physical map of Europe, and we move from city to city, step by step.)

It is a pleasure to see Sydney Greenstreet run the gamut from obnoxious fellow tourist to threatening criminal to – what? – a friend.

It is a pleasure to see Faye Emerson as a bar-owner in Sofia, throatily intoning her memories of Dimitrios.

It is a pleasure to see the lean dark-eyed weasel-like Zachary Scott as Dimitrios, who may or may not be dead.

My favorite moment is toward the end of the movie, when Greenstreet gets shot. Lorre has a conniption fit, as only Lorre can. “He vas my friend!” he seethes. “Vell, he vasn’t exactly my friend, but – vell, I liked him!”

It’s a dramatic moment, and it makes me laugh every time.

“No great shakes of a movie”?

It’s a terrific movie.

Humphrey Bogart double feature

humphrey bogart

When I first came to Providence in 1978, there was a little repertory theater on Thayer Street called the Avon Cinema. It showed a double feature every evening, and changed shows three times a week: foreign films, classics, cult films. You could buy a discount card which gave you five shows (ten movies!) for ten dollars.

Ah, children, those were the days.

The Avon still stands, and Partner and I still go there once in a while. It’s eight dollars per show now, and no more double features. But it’s the same cute little theater, with a tiny lobby and an old-fashioned stage inside, and still owned by Kenny Dulgarian (who, in the 1970s and 1980s, used to greet people in person).

I was also reminded of this because, the other night, on Turner Classic Movies, I saw “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” together, one right after the other.

That was one of the classic Avon double features: at least once every month or two, Kenny would show those two movies together. And, for a couple of bucks, wouldn’t you go see them? (Remember, these were the days before VHS or DVD or cable or Netflix or streaming video. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go see it in a theater.)

Both are beautiful black-and-white masterpieces. Humphrey Bogart is at his best in both (he really did twitch his lips that way). And the supporting casts! Mary Astor as the scheming / seductive Bridget O’Shaughnessy in “Falcon,” and Ingrid Bergman as the luminous Ilse Lund in “Casablanca.” Sydney Greenstreet, evil and somehow sympathetic and funny in both. Peter Lorre, slimy and odd in both. Noah Beery, young and nasty, in “Falcon.” Claude Rains, elegant and funny, in “Casablanca.”

I think that these two movies themselves are an education in film studies. If you learn them – learn them well – you’ll figure out what movies are all about.

They are the stuff that dreams are made of.

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