Sunday, March 13, 2011

Saturday, August 15, 1970: The Mummy (1932) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

The Mummy

Synopsis: On a 1921 expedition to Egypt, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his team have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a mummified body, and near it a small ornate casket. Expert on the occult Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) notes that the mummy did not have its internal organs removed before burial, as was customary in ancient Egypt; furthermore, hieroglyphs on the inside of the sarcophagus that were meant to ensure life after death had been chiseled off. From this Muller deduces that their subject had been buried alive as punishment for some act of sacrilege.

From an inscription upon the casket, the archeologists learn that it contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth. This is the scroll that Isis was said to have used to raise Osiris from the dead, and it bears a warning: any who dare to read it will fall prey to a horrible curse. Whemple and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are eager to proceed, but Muller warns them not to. As Muller and Whemple discuss the matter outside, Norton opens the scroll and begins to read aloud. The mummy comes to life, takes the scroll from a now-hysterical Norton, and disappears into the night.

Ten years later, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) is taking part in another Egyptian expedition. This one meets with little success until a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) appears at the site, offering to show the men the way to the lost tomb of Princess Ankes-en-Amon.

The archeologists are skeptical, but astonished when it turns out that Ardeth Bey was right -- the tomb, undisturbed for 3,700 years, is precisely where the Egyptian said it would be.

Later, the contents of Ankes-en-Amon's tomb are on display in the Cairo museum, and Ardeth Bey returns -- this time staring, hour after hour, at the mummified body of the princess herself. After the museum closes, he kneels beside the mummy's display case. Reading from the Scroll of Thoth, he attempts to raise Ankes-en-Amon from the dead. He does not succeed, but without intending it, his incantations have an effect on a family friend of Dr. Muller, the young half-Egyptian Helen Grovener (Zita Johann). Helen is strangely drawn to the Cairo Museum. Soon it becomes clear that Helen carries the reincarnated spirit of Ankes-en-Amon, the woman for whom Ardeth Bey suffered unspeakable torment 37 centuries earlier. When Ardeth Bey realizes this, he becomes determined to revive the memories Helen carries of her past lives, and thus reclaim a love that death itself could not extinguish....

Comments: Horror Incorporated inaugurates its double-feature format in grand style tonight, with one of the great films of the Universal horror canon.

Most Hollywood films are quickly forgotten, but like its titular character The Mummy has endured the ravages of time and the changes in fashion, and comes away looking pretty good. It is still being watched and appreciated 80 years after its release.

And deservedly so. This is a movie that features a tense, intelligent script, a great performance by Boris Karloff, and a superb German-expressionist look courtesy of director Karl Freund.

The Mummy isn't what most people think of as a standard-issue mummy movie. There are no scenes of a man wrapped in bandages chasing people around. Rather, this first foray into mummy lore essentially retells the story of Dracula: a powerful undead creature tries to ensnare an innocent woman's soul, but is foiled by a modern expert in the occult. In both films David Manners plays the young woman's love interest; and in both films Edward Van Sloan plays the paranormal expert.

These coincidences weren't intentional, or at least not at first; there was no hint of them in the early drafts of the script (which was then titled Cagliostro) by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. It wasn't until John Balderston was brought in to rework the story that the elements from Dracula were introduced, and little wonder -- Balderston had previously adapted Dracula for the screen, from a stage play by Garett Fort.

In spite of the similarities in story, the movie never comes across as a Dracula knock-off. Willy Pogany designed some stunning Egyptian sets for the film, and the Jack Pierce makeup for Boris Karloff is remarkable. Freund's careful choices in camera and lighting lend a brooding atmosphere that prevents the stagebound feel to which Browning's film eventually succumbed.

Zita Johann and Edward Van Sloan bring enormous credibility to their respective roles. Johann is particularly effective in her final scene, when she has finally recalled her past life as Ankes-en-Amon, and implores the goddess Isis to free her from Ardeth Bey's grotesque obession.

But it is Boris Karloff's performance as the sinister Ardeth Bey that really makes this movie go. Karloff manages to imbue his character with both an air of physical frailty and psychological menace.

In the early 1930s Carl Lamaelle, Sr. worried that the horror pictures were tasteless fare, and not the sort of thing that Universal Studios should dabble in. But he couldn't argue with the money these movies brought in. Nevertheless it is to Lamaelle's credit, and Universal's, that the studios' horror output wasn't dreck thrown out for shock value. In the main, these were solidly-crafted pictures, and sometimes -- as on this occasion -- they were great ones as well.

THE MUMMY is part of the DVD set The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, and is available through

The Face Behind the Mask

Synopsis: Immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He's a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O'Hara (Don Beddoe). O'Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can't get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.

Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky's gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go....

Comments: The Face Behind the Mask is a bit like the character of Janos Szoba himself: earnest, eager, willing to work hard, and grateful for any good will that comes its way. Its biggest flaw is that it can't make up its mind -- we're never sure just what sort of movie this is supposed to be. Noirish thriller? Weepy melodrama? Shakespearian tragedy?

Or is it a message film, advocating an end to restrictive immigration laws? It seems that way, at least at first. Title cards suggest that the film is set before passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which had imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants from various countries. The quotas were designed to limit the number of Jews, Italians, eastern Europeans, and other "undesirable" elements entering the U.S.

More likely, though, the titles served as an acknowledgement of current events in 1941, namely the plight of European immigrants desperate to escape the predations of the Nazis. In that light the happy-go-lucky Janos might have come across as a bit frivolous.

In the film's first scene Janos bubbles over with enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming an American. "She is beautiful!" he cries, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, as a few notes of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" creep into the soundtrack. He is eager to learn English, eager to work any job, eager to become, in Craig Ferguson's words, an "American on purpose". To modern audiences this is decidedly corny stuff, but the movie's heart is in the right place, upended only by the jarring shifts in tone.

While an inspiring immigrant's tale might include a tragic setback -- such as disfigurement in a fire -- as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome, success as an underworld kingpin is probably not what most people think of as living the American dream.

The Man Behind the Mask is nevertheless a near-perfect showcase for the talents of Peter Lorre, who handles the transition from naive immigrant to embittered vagrant to, finally, criminal mastermind with such skill that we are able to overlook the improbable turns in the screenplay and just enjoy the ride.

Strong performances help the movie rise above the uncertainty of the script. George E. Stone as Dinky and Evelyn Keyes as Helen both add a great deal to the proceedings.

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK is available through Sinister Cinema.


kochillt said...

HORROR INCORPORATED now parallels Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, which began September 1963 as a Saturday afternoon feature, coupled with a Sunday night feature following the news. After one season under this format, with only an offscreen voice for a host, Bill Cardille began hosting a double feature on Saturday nights following the 11:00 news (September 1964), with expansions for Halloween, until NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ended the glory days by bumping the show to a single feature at 1:00 AM (look up Cardille to find the website devoted to the show). This was truly a superb twin bill to introduce the new double feature format, proof that the show's popularity was well founded. THE MUMMY aired 10 times on CHILLER THEATER, showing off two of Jack Pierce's finest makeups. This was the first time that Universal audiences actually heard Karloff speak, and again they were rewarded by another superb physical performance marked by almost complete stillness, with Freund's camera emphasizing his hypnotic eyes (shades of Lugosi's Dracula). Still, nothing can compare to the brilliant opening scene, where the mummy is never shown walking, but has a lasting effect on an unfortunate observer. Columbia's THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK aired 3 times on CHILLER THEATER, part of the SON OF SHOCK package, and is a favorite made back to back with another star vehicle for Peter Lorre, RKO's STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (one year after the demise of the Mr. Moto series). Lorre had already starred for the same studio in ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN, but here gets to demonstrate his range, from optimistic immigrant to suicidal pessimist, criminal mastermind, and finally angel of vengeance. Certainly one of director Robert Florey's best remembered efforts. These double features are going to take a little longer to review! (call it a labor of love)

Uncle Mike said...

Interestingly, Saturday Night Live was a boon to Horror Incorporated. SNL ended at midnight sharp in the Central time zone, so it proved to be an extremely stable lead-in program.

Yes, the double features are definitely taking longer to complete! Hope everyone keeps checking in for updates.

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