Robert Florey was able to draw on firsthand experience as a U.S. immigrant from Europe—from Paris, in his case, not Budapest—for The Face Behind the Mask, the mordant saga of Janos Szabo, who sees his American hopes, along with his face, go up in smoke when he is trapped in a fleabag hotel fire. Thereafter, due to his disfigured face and despite his skills as a watchmaker, he is unemployable and is routinely treated as a pariah. Peter Lorre, himself from Germany, gives a beautiful performance as Janos, who turns to crime to survive—and to redress the psychic imbalance that an inhospitable country has imposed on his once happy, optimistic nature. This is a terribly sad movie—and, as a metaphor, one that reflects recurrent aspects of the immigrant experience in the U.S.
The film opens with what we mistake for a sentimental flourish: “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the soundtrack; shipboard, the Statue of Liberty in sight. In retrospect, this opening is grim mockery. Similarly, when the bandages are removed from Janos’s burned face and the nurse unprofessionally screams, Florey is mocking the concept of being reborn. As a character, Janos has passed into a horror film from an upbeat drama of hope. His eager voice beaten down to a monotone, Janos is befriended by Dinky, a petty thief—one of America’s homegrown discards. The downward spiral continues as Janos substitutes for Dinky, now sick, on one of his “jobs.” But Janos’s hopes perk up again when Dinky suggests plastic surgery as a fix for his face. (Dinky: “All you need is money.”) In the meantime, there is a rash of high-precision robberies and Janos buys a temporary mask, ironically, based on his passport photograph. And he meets a girl, a blind girl . . . .
Shot in twelve days, The Face Behind the Mask doesn’t feel like a rush-job. It is thoughtful, poignant, tragic.
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