Here’s a classic rarity that used to be shown a lot on UHF TV in the 1970s. It’s the film via which, as a kid, I kind of fell in love with Peter Lorre. Rarely did this great actor have a chance to star totally in a film – even as Mr. Moto he had to share to bulk of the screen time with bumbling comic relief assistants and straight-arrow couples meeting cute onboard the mystery ship, so to speak. But for Robert (BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, MURDER IN THE RUE MORGUE) Florey and a budget of about eight bucks, Lorre gives it his all.
It’s the classic rise and fall crime story, but the twist is that Lorre starts out just an idealist immigrant excited to seek his fortune through hard work in his new home, New York City. Instead, his first night in a hotel he’s horribly burned in a fire and has to wear a thin mask over his face, otherwise he scares and horrifies everyone on the street. The make-up is ingenious, with Lorre’s face seeming just a little stretched over and blank, bunched up at the sides to indicate he’s wearing a mask. The deep philosophical and reflexive aspects of this situation seem unlost on either director or actor, who throw away almost everything except agonizingly humanistic pathos and poetics.
AND YET, the pathos is never maudlin or icky, but rather soothing (thanks to Lorre’s velvety vocal delivery), creepy and a little post-modern – with Lorre’s own weird real life looks keeping him from ever ‘getting the girl’ no matter how many movies he’s in. In the film, Lorre’s scarred ugliness exempts him from all normal avenues of work, so he winds up a crime boss, and later is saved by the love of a blind girl, etc. etc. and it all ends in a big set piece involving a plane landed in the desert, with Lorre tied to the landing gear.
As a kid I saw this movie a dozen times and loved it and yet feared it because it’s kind of a downer, emotionally devastating but what a magnificent downer it is! Even with a blind girl’s love it’s never corny; Florey takes the same low budget of a Sam Katzman or William Beaudine Monogram and turns it into raw poetry, a cross between Sam Fuller pathos-pulp and Edgar Ulmer fatalistic surrealism. And it’s the best Lorre movie. Ever. EVER, do you not hear me? 8 AM Monday is too early for any self-respecting cinema lover to be up, unless he or she is work-bound but that’s what our little friend… the recording device… in your room is for (read that last part in Lorre’s voice). It is already beginning to make me feel seven years-old again!