It's mostly for his protection, but it's also for everyone else's.
We read the novel The Mask of Dimitrios a couple of years ago, so it was a given we'd eventually talk about the movie. Starring Petter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, it deals with a legendary malefactor named Dimitrios Makropoulos who washes up dead on a Turkish beach and draws the interest of a novelist, who decides to research the dead man's life with an eye toward writing a thriller about it. That's a great set-up for a movie right there, and it's even cooler because everything happens in Europe. Lorre, who plays the author, traces the movements of Dimitrios the bogeyman from Istanbul, to Athens, to Sofia, and finally to Paris, seeking to illuminate the man's life and criminal career.
Flashbacks tell us how evil Dimitrios was. Nothing was beyond him—theft, blackmail, political crimes, murder. We're talking irredeemable badness, a virus, a plague. Lorre and Greenstreet cross paths and decide to unravel the Dimitrios mystery together. Its solution offers the possibility of financial reward—one million francs. Lorre is less interested in those than a story he can turn into a great novel, but money up front never hurts. Unless it gets you killed. But while the flashbacks offer crucial exposition, they also shift focus from the film's two unique leads, and in so doing sap the narrative of momentum. They could have been shorter. More screen time for Lorre and Greenstreet would have been the benefit.
The Mask of Dimitrios is classified as a film noir on many websites, but as a drama on AFI.com, which is where we go for genre clarity because crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia and IMDB cast an excessively wide net with their categorizations. Some readers may disagree about whether this particular film is a noir, but what's true is it doesn't have a large number of the usual noir gimmicks, save for those interminable flashbacks, and occasional clever work with shadows. It almost entirely lacks other forms of noir iconography, and particularly lacks the key element of a disaffected central character or character that's screwed and gets more screwed as the plot progresses. On the other hand most of the players are shady and/or amoral.
We know what you're thinking. We aren't a pure pulp site, so how can we be purists about film noir? We're not. We tell you right in the “About Us” section that we're expanding the idea of pulp just for our personal pleasure, not trying to convince readers to redefine it in defiance of what is understood to be pure pulp. Going into The Mask of Dimitrios expecting film noir might lead to disappointment for noir fans, so we're just letting you know where the movie stands. It has its charms, regardless, but overall it's decent, not good, and certainly falls short of being excellent. Even so, watching old crime movies is incredibly satisfying, even when they aren't top notch. The Mask of Dimitrios premiered in today in 1944.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world it was an adventure film.
Above, a beautiful poster for John Huston's love-it-or-hate-it comedic African film Beat the Devil, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1954 and starred Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lorre. This poster, while cool, is completely misleading. Beat the Devil is not an adventure. When it was made there was no category for it, but today such movies are called "camp." Only over time have audiences come to understand it. We wrote about it awhile ago and shared a Belgian poster, here.
Please help me. My husband is on death row and I need to save him so I can kill his cheating ass myself.
These two posters were made to promote the film noir Black Angel, which starred June Vincent, Dan Duryea, Doris Dowling, and Peter Lorre in a story credited to high concept author Cornell Woolrich. But we gather nothing survived from Woolrich except the ending. When a man is convicted of his mistress's murder, the jailed man's cheated upon but noble wife tries to prove her husband innocent with the help of the murdered woman's ex-husband, who, though cuckolded, agrees that the wrong person is ticketed for Old Sparky. They set their sights on shady nightclub owner Peter Lorre and decide to infiltrate his operation in order to find proof he was the real killer. Naturally, as this heartbroken and mismatched pair dig up clues and investigate shady characters, feelings get confused. As in many noirs, there's a final act twist, and the one used here is pretty good, helping to elevate an average thriller to something a bit more memorable. Within the genre it's a significant film, and reasonably enjoyable to watch. Black Angel premiered in the U.S. today in 1946.
A stranger in strange lands comes to know pure evil.
Because Eric Ambler's 1939 thriller The Mask of Dimitrios is the source of the 1944 film noir of the same name starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, we should have read it long ago, but better late than never. The book tells the story of a writer in Istanbul who becomes interested in a killer, smuggler, slaver, and political agitator known as Dimitrios Makropoulos. In hopes of finding inspiration the writer begins to piece together the life of this mystery man.
The investigation carries him from Istanbul to Sofia to Geneva and beyond. That sounds exotic, but the story is almost entirely driven by external and internal dialogues, with little effort spent bringing alive its far flung locales. While we see that as a missed opportunity, and the book could be shorter considering so much of the aforementioned dialogue fails to further illuminate matters, it's fascinating how Dimitrios is slowly pieced together. Here's a line to remember, as the main character Latimer reflects upon the modern age and what the world is becoming:
“The logic of Michelangelo's David and Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's Mein Kampf.”
That isn't one you'd soon forget. Ambler sees casino capitalism and Nazism as twin signposts on a road to perdition built by people like Dimitrios. We can't even imagine that being written by a popular author today without controversy, but Ambler, writing in England during the late 1930s, had zero trouble identifying exactly what he was looking at. This Great Pan edition of The Mask of Dimitrios appeared many years later in 1961, and it has unusual but effective cover art from S. R. Boldero.
Run silent, run deep.
This Japanese poster for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is damaged but still amazing. It was made for the 1954 movie's premiere in Japan today in 1955. Jules Verne's classic novel about Captain Nemo and his futuristic submarine has been mined often. There have been other films, a mini-series for television, a cartoon, and we understand a new cinematic version is in development. We have low expectations for that. In today's Hollywood environment, with its thirst for bland global blockbusters, its aversion to storytelling depth, and its addiction to mindless and often pointless computer graphics, Verne's great story could finally be ruined. But we shall see. We're pretty sure the promo poster won't be as good either.
Fast talking Bogart wisecracks his way into Nazi trouble.
The Humphrey Bogart vehicle All Through the Night is sometimes overlooked thanks to Bogie's array of top notch films,, but it's one vintage cinema fans should make the time to see. It's a wartime thriller and mild propaganda piece dealing with a self-interested NYC gambler who discovers his inner patriot.
This is a character evolution Bogart made several times, for example in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. It all begins begins when the beloved old neighborhood baker who makes Bogart's favorite cheesecake is murdered. Bogie is compelled to find out who did it, and what develops is an amazing hard boiled thriller-cum-comedy, a visually dynamic, fast-paced flick that starts a mile a minute and picks up speed from there.
But there's even more to it than meets the eye (to quote Bogart), something that will dawn on you as you notice the preponderance of foreign accents from Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Peter Lorre, et al. Hmm. What the heck are all these continental types doing in Bogie's neck of the woods? Later one of the great reveals in vintage cinema history involves a painting of a highly newsworthy character and brings everything into sharp focus. That a film of such broad subtext begins when Bogart can't get a piece of cheesecake is one of the many quirks of All Through the Night. Entertainment with a message isn't always easy to accomplish. This film makes it look easy.
We'd be remiss if we didn't also note that, due to a scattershot script that seeks laughs everywhere, you'll get to see one of the more infamous racist gags of the era, one that's even been included on documentaries on the subject. Everyone in the film is a caricature except Bogart, but in early cinema, white characters were portrayed as a vast array of personalities, while the few-and-far-between black characters were never explored with more than superficial interest. This is still something of a problem today, in our opinion. All Through the Night takes the bigoted route, but thankfully it's brief, and we'd argue that it remains a movie to be seen. All Through the Night premiered in the U.S. today in 1941.
Passage to Marseille has plenty of message but not enough movie.
We’ve seen nearly every Humphrey Bogart movie but had been warned away from Passage to Marseille. We finally watched it last night and the haters were right—it’s substantially below standard. You have Casablanca director Michael Curtiz at the helm and Casablanca alumni Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in front of the camera, along with the lovely Michèle Morgan in the female lead, but all their combined efforts cannot elevate this clumsily written propaganda piece. Curtiz is not to blame—his direction is functional and James Wong Howe photographs everything beautifully. Likewise, Bogart manages his role adequately, Lorre and his emotive brow are put to ample use, and Rains dons an eyepatch and permafrown to bring some gravity to matters.
But Passage to Marseille is just a badly written film. Where Casablanca used patriotic sentiments adroitly (who can forget the way the singing of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” both roused the audience and advanced the plot?), Passage to Marseille flounders under the weight of cheap nationalism and sticky sentiment. It enjoys a decent rating on many review websites but we daresay that’s mainly due to Bogart bias (wherein even his bad flicks like Chain Lightning and Battle Circus have good ratings). We love the guy too, but no actor in history has batted 1.000, and this movie was a clean whiff. As propaganda it doubtless got the job done, but as a film we suggest consigning it to a dusty, unreachable shelf. Passage to Marseille premiered in Sweden as På väg mot Marseille today in 1944.
Beat the Devil flopped in 1954 but today is appreciated as pioneering camp cinema.
We’ll tell you right now that we are not neutral when it comes to John Huston’s Beat the Devil. We love it. It has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, and the exquisite Jennifer Jones, so we loved it immediately. If only audiences had felt the same. The movie was such a flop that not only did it lose money, but its copyright went unrenewed, causing it lapse into public domain. But keen observers, after they got over being misled by the promotional campaign into thinking the movie was a standard Hollywood adventure, soon realized that what they had on their hands was something new—a camp satire bringing together some of the most distinct voices of 1950s cinema.
And we mean voices literally. You have Humphrey Bogart with his famous lisp, Gina Lollobrigida with her vampy Italian drawl, Jennifer Jones trying on an English lilt, Peter Lorre with his trademark Germanic accented sniveling, and more. The accents are your first clue that the movie is going to be all over the place.
The plot concerns a group of raggedy adventurers who hope to buy uranium-rich land in East Africa. Problem is, they need to get there. Seems straightforward enough, but the cosmos itself is aligned against them—cars fail, boats sink, betrayals ensue, information gets garbled, and just about any other obstacle you can imagine appears.
But Beat the Devil isn’t slapstick. It’s satire, which means it isn’t funny in a conventional way. In fact, maybe there isn’t a real laugh in the entire movie. Yet you have to smile when Marco Tulli introduces Peter Lorre’s character O’Hara as O’Horror, you have to marvel at Jennifer Jones’ crazy accent that sounds like an English version of Bogart’s lisp, and you have to watch with heightened interest during her famous calesthenics sequence, in which she has an entire conversation with Gina Lollobrigida while doing... well, we don't know what she's doing, but it looks like this.
Despite these and other charms, Beat the Devil is polarizing. Bogart declared that only phonies liked it. Huston, on the other hand, was well aware of its uniqueness and even told Jennifer Jones—who had already been nominated for four Academy Awards and had won once—that Beat the Devil would be one of her most remembered roles. True enough. The French and Dutch language poster you see above is for the Belgian release, and was put together by S.P.R.L. Belgique. Beat the Devil opened in France today, and Belgium this month in 1954.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1937—The Hobbit is Published
J. R. R. Tolkien publishes his seminal fantasy novel The Hobbit, aka The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Marketed as a children's book, it is a hit with adults as well, and sells millions of copies, is translated into multiple languages, and spawns the sequel trilogy The Lord of Rings.
1946—Cannes Launches Film Festival
The first Cannes Film Festival is held in 1946, in the old Casino of Cannes, financed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and the City of Cannes.
1934—Arrest Made in Lindbergh Baby Case
Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous American aviator. The infant child had been abducted from the Lindbergh home in March 1932, and found decomposed two months later in the woods nearby. He had suffered a fatal skull fracture. Hauptmann was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and finally executed by electric chair in April 1936. He proclaimed his innocence to the end
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