It’s tempting to consider The Mask of Dimitrios a relative of The Maltese Falcon. Both feature twisty plots full of deception. Both feature the cinematography of Arthur Edeson. And both feature Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, two spectacular character actors who always pair well together.
But this 1944 film noir isn’t quite the animal that The Maltese Falcon is and something wavers in Jean Negulesco’s picture. Nevertheless, the screenplay by Frank Gruber is based on Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel of the same name and the dialogue is tight. The performances are good, too.
Lorre stars as detective novelist Cornelius Leyden. He runs into a fan (Kurt Katch) who tells him of Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott), a conman who has left a trail of blackmail across Europe. Makropoulos is dead, apparently, but Leyden seeks out people acquainted with the slippery crook.
The trail leads Leyden to several characters, including an ex-lover (Faye Emerson) and the smuggler Mr. Peters (Greenstreet). The latter went in with Makropoulos on a plot and was betrayed. Peters believes that the criminal is alive and wants revenge. He ropes Leyden into helping him.
Much of The Mask of Dimitrios is told in flashback, with Markopoulos’ associates revealing their dealings with the man. The most extensive sequence involves Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen) and his hiring of Markopoulos to obtain state secrets in Yugoslavia. This involves the employment of government official Karel Bulic (Steven Geray).
Bulic is an intensely sympathetic character. He is manipulated by the amiable Makropoulos and a scene inside a steep casino is heartbreaking, with Grodek and others working a scheme that involves the slight seduction of Bulic’s gorgeous wife (Marjorie Hoshelle). The woman is so out of Bulic’s league that he flutters his money away to earn her respect.
Unfortunately, few other sequences in The Mask of Dimitrios match the evil roundabout seduction of the aforementioned piece and the movie has a tendency to get too chatty for its own good. This is a necessary device given Leyden’s path through the story, but there’s little that attaches him to the events apart from creative interest.
Lorre plays a unique role in that his unusual nature is not the subject of much attention. He is still small, almost timid, and he still casts an abnormal visage. But there’s nothing lurid about him and his Leyden is essentially a good guy, even though his motives have no real moral thrust.
Greenstreet cuts a more impressive character and he blends well with Lorre, as always. His role, like Lorre’s, is unusual but his motive is less abstruse. He’s headed for revenge and he’s willing to lie about everything to get there. He’ll even lie about lies, which bends the plot into a pretzel and makes him a figure not to be trusted.
The whirling flashbacks play with the audience’s notions of truth and the dubious characters help provoke a sense of confusion, but there’s still something missing. The Mask of Dimitrios can be kind of languorous, with a lack of cerebral heft. The movie looks and sounds good in a conventional sense, but it’s not quite as engaging as it could be.