The Face Behind the Mask, a rare film noir, starring Peter Lorre as Jonas “Johnny” Sazbo an immigrant watchmaker who comes to America full of hope searching for the American dream. Through the help of a friendly police officer, Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) Jonas finds an apartment. Unfortunately, his first night their, a fire breaks out and he is hideously burned though he survives. His face totally scarred this talented watchmaker is refused employment repeatedly due to his deformity. He meets up with a small time thief, Dinky (George E Stone) and turns to a life of crime to survive and make enough money to get a face mask to cover his scars. Jonas becomes the boss of a criminal gang due his uncannily ability to plan robberies and outsmarting the law. Jonah runs into a young beautiful blind woman named Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who despite her handicap sells trinket jewelry and has a full life. Jonas falls in love with Helen who sees the good person in Jonas that was there before he turned to his life of crime. They make plans to marry and live out in the country. Jonas tells the gang he’s quitting and wants out but the gang does not like what they are hearing and plan to kill him by blowing up his car, only they kill Helen instead. With this Jonas’ last chance at love and redemption are lost, all that is left is revenge. Jonas gets the gang members on to a plane that they think is taking them out of the country however, Jonas who is the pilot, lands the plane in the middle of the desert where they all slowly die, an unusual ending, which is surprising and unique. All in all “The Face Behind the Mask” is a poignant, yet somewhat twisted noirish look at the American dream.
Robert Florey deemphasizes the horror aspects of the film keeping Jonas’ deformed face in the shadows or hidden from the camera. For a good portion of the film, Lorre’s face is not seen until he gets his mask. You should also note the socially conscience details of the film, the immigrant coming to America to start a new life and how people reacted to Jonas’ disability by shunning him, rejecting him in horror which ultimately leads him to his life of crime. As a director, Florey was influenced by the German Expressionist movement, which is evident in many scenes in this film and in his 1929 short “Skyscraper Symphony”, a study of the geometric patterns of New York skyscrapers.
Peter Lorre is perfect as the immigrant Jonas. Lorre has been one of the most interesting and original actors to ever grace the screen. Here he provides a sensitive and engaging performance. It is hard to imagine another actor in this role. The under appreciated Evelyn Keyes is also good in her role as Helen, Jonas’ blind love. Also notable is George E Stone who plays Dinky.
The movie runs only slightly over one hour and has never been released on home video or DVD. I believe it has been on Turner Classic Movies on occasion so keep your eyes open for it.