THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (James Whale, 1939)

There have been numerous filmed versions of The Man in the Iron Mask, based on novels by Alexandre Dumas père, including the lackluster silent The Iron Mask (1929), directed by Allan Dwan and starring Douglas Fairbanks père, and the imbecilic version that proves the one worse thing than having Leonardo DiCaprio in the cast is having two Leonardo DiCaprios (1998, Randall Wallace). But I have liked since boyhood James Whale’s version, efficiently written by George Bruce, and starring Louis Hayward and Louis Hayward as France’s King Louis XIV and his twin brother, Philippe of Gascony, who was whisked away at birth to avoid royal conflict and raised in the healthy country in the hearty company of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. Naturally, Philippe turned out a splendid fellow, while Louis turned out to be a tax-inflicting lout. This is one of those “What if . . .” stories that fires up the imagination. Could the Sun King, who reigned in France from the age of five until his death in 1715, really have been a substituted unheard-of twin? To paraphrase Tallulah Bankhead at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: “Perhaps Roberto Rossellini has the answer.”
     Although the sword fights (the usual attraction of this sort of film for boys) are given short shrift, this is an engrossing film of fraternal enmity. Eventually Louis finds out about Philippe and, after using him as a replacement for himself in a public ceremony that might end in assassination, fiendishly has his face locked into an iron mask and his body tossed into solitary confinement in the Bastille. But the Spanish princess to whom Louis is engaged, but who is in love with Philippe, steals the key to the mask that Louis wears around his neck. In a wonderful shot, Louis’s back is to the camera and Maria Theresa’s arm, rendered immense by the camera proximity, reaches around.
     But the best shots are closeups of Philippe’s head in the suffocating iron mask. (Hair growth underneath is meant to strangle Philippe.) These grisly shots nudge the visual aspect of the film into the horror genre. I don’t think we are shown the mask’s being put on Philippe, but when Louis is forced to take his brother’s place, we do see Louis’s head being locked into his own contraption—how ironical, these just desserts. No matter how much of a bastard he has been, especially to his poorest subjects, however, Louis becomes pitiable at this point. No one believes he is King of France, and he gets viciously whipped for insisting he is!
     The royal court-intrigue stuff is nowhere near the Sternberg/Eisenstein level, and the normally beautiful Joan Bennett, who plays Maria Theresa, herself seems to be wearing a parched mask (or is this deliberate irony?); but the film is a lot of fun.
     Hayward and Bennett do well by their roles.

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