The Mask of Dimitrios (1945)

The Mask of Dimitrios (1945) beloved of many whom adore the adventurous and thrilling aspect of the silver screen in its lovely golden age, is part mystery, part adventure and a part film noir.

That part which remains film noir, is here within The Mask of Dimitrios, perhaps relegated to the baggage of delight and mystery which is transported within the facial and emotional aspects presented by Peter Lorre. 

Lorre in The Mask of Dimitrios does not however play to any of his strengths, and plays best of all in his duet with Sidney Greenstreet.  Peter Lorre is for once the good guy, the hero no less, the seeker on that often-told quest and his are the bulging eyes through which the audience approaches the mystery.

Like every good slice of film noir, The Mask of Dimitrios is told mostly in flashback. Like many other film noir favourites, the character flashing back is in fact a writer, a mystery writer in this case. 

On hearing about the exploits of the international blackguard Dimitrios, Peter Lorre becomes fascinated and determines to learn as much as he can from as many sources as he can find, and crucially, every one of these sources has been left sadder and wiser after their encounter.

Jean Negulesco who later moved over to 20th Century Fox and made more lighter films than this, did manage to generate of dream of sorts here, in the form of a study in pure evil, in the form of Zachary Scott playing Dimitrios Makropoulos.

The Mask of Dimitrios rolls with a foreword which after a fashion does serve to warn viewers that the character of Dimitrios has no values or moral sense to speak of:

For money, some men will allow the innocent to hang. They will turn traitor....they will lie, cheat, steal...they will kill. They appear brilliant, charming, generous! But they are deadly. Such a man was Dimitrios.

The duet of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre was a special meeting. Their most notable early films were surely Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon; the pair’s first movie after Casablanca, Background to Danger (1943) is a weird laugh of an hour and a half, as they take a backseat to placid George Raft.

Still, Greenstreet drives the plot and he’s great as Nazi Colonel Robinson with a mission to bring neutral Turkey into the war by any means. Raft is a pugnacious American, who is a spy, and he meets Nikolai Zaleshoff, a Russian spy played by Lorre.

The Conspirators (1944), is another tale of wartime comings and goings and sees Lorre and Greenstreet on the same side. It's an organised anti-Nazi thriller starring Paul Henreid and Hedy Lamarr.

The Mask of Dimitrios was released by Warners a few months before The Conspirators, and is another that was drawn from a novel by Eric Ambler.

Set in Europe in 1938, and besides Zachary Scott playing the titular Dimitrios, who is a smuggler and criminal, and a bit of a cad; the focus is very much on Lorre and Greenstreet. The dramatic effect is that Scott's fabulous Dimitrios is presented wonderfully as mythical, legendary; and this is the door to the magic in this magical film noir.

Lorre plays Leyden, a Dutch mystery writer who is looking for the subject of his next book. The writer and the teller of the tale is a familiar framing device in film noir. In film noir are the best stories within stories; the storytellers themselves, whether its Sunset Boulevard, or In a Lonely Place; the framing of film noir is the natural territory for the writer as character, as a key noir theme or trope.

Dutch mystery Leyden does therefore find his story, and he stumbles across the story of Dimitrios, whose body has washed ashore near Istanbul.

Zachary Scott as the uber-scoundrel Dimitrios

Leyden hears some tantalising details of Dimitrios’ outrageous life from a local police official and, intrigued, he begins to fill in Dimitrios’ entire story, opening door after door, journeying as writer.

He travels through Europe, interviewing people whose lives were broken by Dimitrios’ treachery, and an increasingly dangerous and fascinating figure appears. And of course, a dark tale of this must involve multiple threats, and unknown to Leyden at first, he is being shadowed shadowed by an ominous figure, Mr Peters, played by Sydney Greenstreet, who has his own history with Dimitrios.

As the two move across Europe from danger to danger, they form a working relationship as we all try and piece together the mystery, or even work out what the mystery is. Two elements in The Mask of Dimitrios continue to hint at film noir.

The first is the ongoing reference to the profession of the writer, and the multi-layered tale-telling approach. Peter Lorre is a louche figure, often reclining on to his side and staring seductively up, when he is soaking up the detail. The Turkish police chief we meet at the start of course confesses to Lorre that he too should have and maybe even will, write a crime novel or a mystery novel.

At one point Greenstreet even insists to Lorre: “This is not a detective story!”

Our second signpost to noir is how dark this movie is. When we first see Dimitrios in action, in a scene set back in 1922, when Dimitrios was a fig-packer with a criminal side hustle in robbery, we see him surprisingly and suddenly stabbing his robbery victim to death for no real reason; and framing his partner for the crime. This quite unwelcome level of cruelty is one of the hooks that secure us to a shadowy Mediterranean landscape that is nearly unique to The Mask of Dimitrios. 

If there is a sub-genre on display here it may be adventure noir, although the larger mode at the time was likely to be that of espionage. As a reflection on the state of the continent, there is little on display in any character, as far as moral sense goes. Leyden, the writer, argues that he is not on this escapade for financial reasons and confirms that he is not motivated by money. But at the same time he appears impressed rather than repelled by Dimitrios’s murderous movements.

This dark Europe then is a bed of corruption and criminality. Even among the meek, as represented by Stephen Geray's character, the corruption is everything, with only matters of degree between himself and others in the movie.  

Zachary Scott, who plays Dimitrios, went on to perform in scoundrel and cad type of roles, most notably of all in Mildred Pierce, 1945, and is an odd choice as a master criminal. His image is that of a matinee idol, positive and handsome and with a twinkle in his eye — not the kind of twinkle that would indicate cold blooded backstabbing murder. 

The Mediterranean world of darkness of this film noir is one of nightclubs, trains, villas, and hotel rooms, with the odd back alley and mansion.  These are brought to life by the actors more than the story or the script. It's up to Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to make the cities — Paris, Geneva, Sofia, Belgrade — real — as real as could be imagined on the Warner's lot.

The Mask of Dimitrios works hard to create its own film noir world, without the imagination and emotional power of the great directors of the era, although where it succeeds is in its ridiculous, and even convoluted plots basted with darkness to draw out as much mystery as possible.

Colonel Haki: But to me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired a shot - but who paid for the bullet!



In 1938, the Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden is visiting Istanbul. A fan, Colonel Haki of the Turkish police, believes that Leyden would be interested in the story of Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose body was just washed up on the beach. 

Leyden is so fascinated by what Haki tells of the dead criminal that he becomes determined to learn more.

He seeks out Dimitrios' associates all over Europe, none of whom has a kind word for the deceased. They reveal more of the man's sordid life. His ex-lover, Irana Preveza, tells of his failed assassination attempt. Afterwards, he borrowed money from her and never returned.

On his travels, Leyden meets Mr. Peters. Later, he catches Peters ransacking his hotel room. Peters reveals that he too had dealings with Dimitrios  - - he had done prison time when Dimitrios betrayed their smuggling ring to the police - - and he is not convinced that the man is really dead. If Dimitrios is alive, Peters plans to blackmail him for keeping his secret. He generously offers Leyden a share, but the Dutchman is interested only in learning the truth.

Wladislaw Grodek is the next link in the trail. He had hired Dimitrios to obtain some state secrets. Dimitrios manipulated Karel Bulic, a meek minor Yugoslav government official, into gambling and losing a huge sum so that he could be pressured into stealing charts of some minefields. Bulic later confessed to the authorities and committed suicide. Meanwhile, Dimitrios double-crossed Grodek by selling the charts himself to the Italian government.

Eventually, the two men track Dimitrios down in Paris. Fearful of being exposed to the authorities, he pays Peters one million francs for his silence, but true to his nature, goes to Peters' home shortly thereafter and shoots him. Leyden, with his rage over Peters being shot overcoming his fear, grapples with Dimitrios and allows the wounded Peters to grab the gun. Peters sends Leyden away to spare him from witnessing the violence to come, and shots are then heard.

When the police show up, Peters admits to shooting Dimitrios and does not resist arrest, and is satisfied with what he has accomplished. As he is taken away, he asks for Leyden to write a book about the affair and kindly to send him a copy.

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