Peter Lorre is Janos, a poor immigrant who has come to America looking for work in order to get enough money that he might marry his fiancé in The Face Behind the Mask. Things start out well for Janos, but when a fellow resident at the local flophouse is careless, a fire disfigures the face of Janos so badly that nothing can be done about it. For a little while, this drives Janos mad and yet one day, he meets a stranger who introduces him to kindness once again, as well as a life of crime. It is not too long before Janos is both feared and respected as a criminal mastermind and sometime later, when he decides he wants out after falling in love with a blind woman, he finds that doing so is far harder than it seems.
While it has been said that Lorre thought this was one of his worst performances, it is in fact one of his better ones. The man brings a lot to the role, going from humble to emotionally distraught and damaged to confident and cruel with incredible ease. The film ends with the man going full circle until he is finally brought to vengeance through tragedy and it is a real rollercoaster of emotions played out upon the big screen through Lorre’s deft touch. What makes this even more exceptional is the fact that for most of the picture the man is wearing a mask, albeit a very poor one that only consists of using makeup to transform Lorre’s natural features into something slightly less than human. The budget so to speak, was not a lot and the makers of this film had to improvise where possible. As it is, it looks like a mask which is most important and perhaps it is due to its poor/non-existent manufacture that Lorre was able to really connect with the audience far more than if the mask was an actual one. Janos is a tragic figure, from nearly beginning to end and one cannot help but be not only compelled by the man’s performance, but the character’s fate after discovering that one does not have to remain a monster despite the thoughts of others or one’s personal appearance.
The film not only sports a fantastic character brought to life by the incomparable Lorre, but some great camera work from director Robert Florey and some skilled cinematography from Franz Planer who cast the movie in shadow so as to make the ‘mask’ that Lorre wears work to its fullest extent. For all the dark in the film, there are those scenes when Helen as played by Evelyn Keyes make an appearance, filled with light and levity. It not only marks a turning point in the film, but in the character of Janos, a chance for redemption that he takes, short lived as it is. With additional support from the likes of Don Beddoe and George E. Stone, the film does not lack for talent and strengthens the lead played by Lorre to make for a very powerful movie.
Overall, The Face Behind the Mask turned out to be a truly fascinating piece of cinema and one that any true fan of Lorre or movies in general should see.
4 out of 5