Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday, June 6, 1970: Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”*, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: Okay, let's see what we've got here. A sinister mastermind known only as“Mr. X”. A wire recorder that captures phone dispatches from criminal agents. Hospitals where snoopy undercover cops are dispatched with unnecessary surgeries. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, sure it does. And the truth is, director John Francis Dillon could have made a good movie from the raw material that went into Behind the Mask. Instead, every time he got close to doing something interesting, he chickened out.

It's difficult to understand how you could blow so many opportunities in a mere 70 minutes. Everything in this movie is bungled – Agent Burke’s murder at the hands of the drug gang establishes an entirely different m.o. than is used later in the film. Quinn’s romance with Julie seems exhausted and perfunctory. Henderson’s attempt to kill Quinn when he discovers his identity is exceedingly clumsy (why doesn’t Henderson just shoot him?). Mr. X himself, whose identity is supposed to be the Big Fat Secret Key To Everything, isn’t even mentioned until 24 minutes into the picture. You can get away with pacing like that if you’re Tarkovsky or maybe Hitchcock, and then just barely.

This is a movie that perfectly demonstrates the kind of bread-and-butter character parts Boris Karloff won before he became a household name in his mid-40s. Karloff worked on this movie after Frankenstein was filmed, but before it was released. After his smash success playing Colin Clive's tormented science fair project, he was able to quit playing common thugs and graduated to mad scientists and brilliant lunatics.

Perhaps because success came relatively late in his career, he never seemed to take it for granted, saying "You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time." It's a statement that I guarantee you'll never hear from Tom Cruise.

Karloff is lucky, too, that he gets to work again with Edward Van Sloan, who gives a remarkably wacky and over-the-top performance here as Dr. Steiner.

Better-known today as the father of actor Tim (The Magnificent Ambersons) Holt, Jack Holt was once famous in his own right. He appeared in nearly a hundred silent features, and he carried on as a brusque leading-man type well into the sound era. I always associate him with Robert Armstrong for some reason, perhaps because they worked in the same era and used the same theatrical rat-a-tat delivery.

BEHIND THE MASK never had a proper DVD release, but you can purchase a copy from Loving the Classics, a great site for public-domain movies.


*How? There was only room for one dummy on that plane.


kochillt said...

The earliest Columbia title in the SON OF SHOCK television package, and a second opportunity to see Karloff working with Edward Van Sloan, who gets to play the fiendish villain here. Jack Holt was the studio's biggest star of the early talkie era, so they really threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Leading lady Constance Cummings was no stranger to Boris, already in her third feature opposite him, all for Columbia- THE CRIMINAL CODE and THE GUILTY GENERATION were both excellent, as were her roles in Harold Lloyd's MOVIE CRAZY, and the heroine of James Whale's 1935 whodunit REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (she died in 2005 at age 95). BEHIND THE MASK aired only once on CHILLER THEATER, on July 8 1967, paired with the 1961 Mexican spoof BRING ME THE VAMPIRE, and just recently debuted on Turner Classic Movies.

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