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Istanbul, 1938. A corpse identified as Dimitrios Markopoulos washes up on the beach, bringing an end to the career of the elusive international smuggler. Fascinated by Dimitrios' life story, the Dutch mystery author Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) decides to turn it into a novel and travels to exotic locales such as Athens, Sofia and Paris in order to retrace the criminal's rise from fruit picker to master smuggler. Along the way, he runs across former lovers and colleagues, including Mr. Peters, who ingratiates himself with Leyden and offers him a handsome reward to complete his investigation. But Leyden's journey reveals unsettling truths about Dimitrios, his associates, and even himself.
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is usually considered the real directing debut of Romanian born Jean Negulesco (1900-1993); he was taken off of his first project, Singapore Woman (1941) mid-production, although he was still credited as its sole director. In 1940, Negulesco was working as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers when Jack Warner offered him and other writers and short film directors the opportunity to direct a low-budget feature film based on un-produced studio properties or remakes of previously unsuccessful projects. Negulesco proposed a new version of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, but the project was given to John Huston instead. Huston later returned the favor by recommending the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios. When Negulesco submitted the proposal, his new agent, Frank Orsatti, known for his extravagant behavior - described by Negulesco as "the Las Vegas Mafia approach" - flashed $10,000 in bills in front of Warner, challenging him to a bet that Negulesco would win an Oscar if he directed the picture. Although he didn't take up the bet, Warner was impressed enough by Orsatti's high-pressure tactics to give Negulesco the assignment. Working titles for the film were A Coffin for Dimitrios and A Mask for Dimitrios. Negulesco fought to cast the unconventional Peter Lorre in the lead, although he was usually relegated to supporting roles; Negulesco regarded Lorre as the best actor working in Hollywood. The Lorre-Greenstreet pairing, which proved so effective in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), takes center stage in The Mask of Dimitrios, the fourth of their eight collaborations. Negulesco would use them again in The Conspirators (1944) and Three Strangers (1946).
The character of Dimitrios was inspired by the real-life figure of Sir Basil Zaharoff (1849-1936). Born in Turkey under the name of Basileios Zakharias and popularly known as "Mystery Man of Europe," Zaharoff was an international arms dealer, financier, intelligence agent and British knight. He was notorious for using doubles to cover for him and for refusing to allow himself to be photographed. Novelist Eric Ambler, whose book was the basis for this film, also wrote Uncommon Danger, which was adapted into the 1943 thriller Background to Danger. His numerous screenplays include The Cruel Sea (1953) - which received an Academy Award nomination - and A Night to Remember (1958). Shortly after the film was finished Faye Emerson, who plays Irana, made the headlines by marrying Elliott Roosevelt, son of the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1966 a remake was planned (but not filmed), with Rock Hudson in the starring role.
Director: Jean Negulesco
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Frank Guber, based on the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editing: Frederick Richards
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Principal cast: Peter Lorre (Cornelius Leyden), Sydney Greenstreet (Mr. Peters), Zachary Scott (Dimitrios Markopoulos), Faye Emerson (Irana Preveza), Victor Francen (Wladislaw Grodek), Florence Bates (Mme. Chavez), Kurt Katch (Colonel Haki).
BW-96m. Closed captioning
by James Steffin