Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Horror or Noir?

At first this was a difficult question for me to consider, in regards to film noir this is an early film, released in 1941. Yet the plot devices are unmistakably noir, a good man gone wrong under circumstances he cannot control. The Face Behind the Mask is a story of a shattered American dream with a morbid twist ending.

"The Face Behind the Mask is the most deeply felt of Robert Florey's movies, reflecting his compassionate treatment of the unfortunate, as well as the visual artistry he brought to filmmaking." -Brian Taves

The protagonist Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) has qualities of a modern-day Frankenstein, with all of the tragic overtones of rejection for his horrific appearance. The film begins upon his arrival in the United States, and he is filled with hope, innocence and excitement for his new life. The hand of fate intervenes on his first night, and he suffers severe 3rd degree burns to his face in a hotel fire.

The aftermath of the injury is immensely tragic for Janos as well as the viewer. Director Robert Florey handles the first revelation of Janos's face perfectly in a scene filled with atmospheric horror. This is a segment of the film that feels like a horror movie. We are transported to the hospital for the removal of his bandages. His face is covered in layers of gauze, with only eyes and mouth visible. There is no gore, but Janos resembles a monster in this scene even before his face is revealed. He nervously speaks to the doctor as he unwraps and cuts the bandages, of his former profession as a watch-maker, stating his penchant for mechanical genius. When his face is unveiled, the nurse in the room grimaces, and another one screams.

Janos begins to panic and runs to a mirror, which the nurse had strategically covered, anticipating a traumatic situation. We as the viewers, are still blind to his appearance. Florey took great care to build suspense by shooting from angles so that Janos's disfigurement is not visible. We see Janos face at the same time he does; even the quick glimpse of his destroyed visage, we as the viewers experience the same sense of shock, anguish and horror as the character himself.

Janos loses it. He attacks the doctor in frantic fury, begging for some kind of explanation and resolution for his mangled appearance. Physician and nurses finally manage to restrain him, and the doctor shakes his head in sorrow, expressing his sympathy for Janos's altered destiny. This is the point where the story shifts to true noir.

The film has a socially conscious angle in the sense that it addresses the discrimination that Janos experiences as he embarks on his job search with his hideous face. He is rejected multiple times as he searches for work as a watch-maker and becomes suicidal at one point, ready to drown himself, rescued by a small time criminal named Dinky. "Landing in the grave is not my idea of life." The filming in this nighttime scene is incredible, using the waterfront to create undulating light and shadows.

He turns to a life of crime, where his mechanical abilities are utilized in disabling alarms to commit robberies. The way that Janos physical deformity is handled medically is quite interesting as well, and a reference to the title of the film. Janos visits a plastic surgeon who makes him a realistic latex mask that disguises his face so that he does not horrify society.

Lorre does not actually wear a latex mask in the film but he gives the impression effectively: "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."

Janos is treated maliciously by most, with the exception of his fellow criminals who admire his abilities and a beautiful blind woman whom he encounters after departing the plastic surgeon's office. The doctor has just informed him that his face will require multiple surgeries over a period of 15 years and he is emotionally devastated. Meeting Helen offers Janos a chance at redeeming himself. We can see what a pure heart his character has through his interactions with this woman, and she teaches him through her own lack of vision, that appearances are not all that matters.

"My blindness gives me the freedom of a kingdom you can never imagine. I see as I wish to see."


This is Janos one chance at redemption, his love for Helen, and she is brutally taken away from him in an act of violence when he tries to leave his life of crime to build a happier life with her. His subsequent actions are those of a desperate and hopeless man. The final 10 minutes of the movie are sinister, twisted and chilling, in a desolate environment, fitting to the noir genre.





Written by Phantom Lady Vintage



7 comments:

  1. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I recall this film as particularly sinister in seeing how Lorre's character changes after his disfigurement. That kind of fatalism makes it quite noirish. The film also has one of Lorre's best performances ever.

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  2. LOVE this blog but find white on black very difficult to read, with or without glasses. I get it, it's NOIR. You should consult with a designer for a compromise, there are reasons things aren't written this way.

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    Replies
    1. We've been running the site this way for seven years so I'm not planning on changing it right now.

      However, you could also view the NOTW at:
      http://www.noiroftheweek.com/?m=1

      or on Facebook:

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/Film-Noir-of-the-Week

      for a different look at the page.

      Also, try subscribing by email which also has a different view of the Noir of the Week.

      Delete
    2. We've been running the site this way for seven years so I'm not planning on changing it right now.

      However, you could also view the NOTW at:
      http://www.noiroftheweek.com/?m=1

      or on Facebook:

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/Film-Noir-of-the-Week

      for a different look at the page.

      Also, try subscribing by email which also has a different view of the Noir of the Week.

      Delete
  3. I just saw this at Noir City Chicago!
    F.B.M. was definitely one of the stand-out films of the whole festival, along with Three Strangers and 99 River Street.

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  4. This film and Florey and Lorre's The Beast With Five Fingers should be in DVD.

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  5. I searched for a DVD version and none is available. Really too bad.

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